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Coercive Control: A Roller Coaster of Flight and Freeze

Over the last couple decades I have been working with women struggling to navigate intimate partner violence. Recently I have noticed on social media the upsurge of posts creating public awareness on how coercive controlling relationships play out.

In my work with those navigating these dynamics I have noticed on the one hand the ongoing panic, fear, and anxiety experienced as a normal state of being; on the other hand I have noticed the numbness, depression, hopelessness, helplessness, shutdown and shame also as a normal state of being.

These experiences are in essence linked to the nervous systems automatic response to the perception of threat. Ultimately the person needs to cope in a war zone and these are purposeful coping mechanisms of flight, linked to the panic, or of a freeze state linked to the numbness or disconnection.

It can become an auto-pilot reaction - possibly even a "sane" response to the insanity of an erratic, unpredictable and threatening environment. Interestingly though when the fight response comes into play, it can on the one hand, finally motivate one to develop a safety plan; or alternatively it can lead to outbursts of aggression that has been pent up from years of learned helplessness. It is not uncommon in the literature for women in these relationships to in fact be court ordered anger management, and be labelled the perpetrator. I myself have had several clients in these situations where after years of submission and built up resentment they finally crack- thus the fight response.

There are those in our own midst, our neighbors and our friends who are living with no voice, with no face and with no agency. Be aware that control is insidious and systemic, mostly covert; and not only is it challenging for others to observe, but ironically most women themselves living in this state are in turn unaware of the oppressive nature of their daily existence. Be aware of your surroundings and connect those with education and supports.

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