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Are you Experiencing Inescapable Shock?

Perhaps you’ve heard of “Pavlov’s Dogs”, which was named after the Russian scientist, Ivan Pavlov, who won the Nobel Prize for his theory of “Classical Conditioning”. Twenty years after winning his Nobel Prize he stumbled across another discovery that didn’t get as much publicity, but I find equally fascinating called “Inescapable Shock*”. Inescapable shock is “a physical condition in which the organism cannot do anything to affect the inevitable.” Meaning, the body desires to react in a certain way, but the circumstances prevent that from happening.

Pavlov kept all of his test dogs in a kennel in his laboratory that was located right next to a river. After a bad storm one night, the river overflowed causing a huge flood in the laboratory threatening the lives of the dogs who were locked in their kennels. (Luckily, none were killed.) The next morning when Pavlov and his associates checked on the dogs, they noticed a distinct difference in the dog’s behaviors. The once friendly and playful dogs were now either aggressive or despondent. His discovery was: when the water came rushing in, the dog’s fight or flight response kicked in (the fight or flight hormones send signals to the muscles commanding them into action); however, since the dogs were in cages and had nowhere to go, their systems went into overload. Pavlov wrote*, “a collision between two contrary processes: one of excitation (action) and the other of inhibition (caged), which were difficult to accommodate simultaneously…causing a breakdown of equilibrium.”

Taking it a step further, in a study done with rats, they found that those who previously experienced inescapable shock are less likely to react (or are rendered powerless) when faced with a repeat of trauma-stimulation.

It’s as if their fight or flight button broke. 

Research done with war veterans and PTSD show this theory translates to humans as well.

You may have experienced inescapable shock as a child if you were in a household where there was ongoing conflict, abuse, trauma or just a really moody parent or sibling. I grew up with the latter. I recall walking home from school and pausing at my front door to take deep breaths to prepare myself for whatever mood I was about to walk in to. At dinner, I would sit frozen and unable to talk or eat, while nervously shredding a paper napkin in my lap. If you are a kid living in a high stress environment and there is no where for you to go, it’s likely you’ll experience inescapable shock. Unaddressed this can result in a painstakingly present and ongoing hum of anxiety that stays with you for a lifetime.

During the 4th of July week, while the fireworks go off, my dog, Luna, curls herself into the tightest ball in the back of my closet. She lays super still in the same position the entire night. If you touch her body you can feel her muscles tight in contraction. In Sacramento, fireworks are legal and all of the neighbors that surround my house shoot them off every night for a week straight. I make a point to take Luna to the park first thing every morning to throw the ball and make her run until she says “uncle”.  I make sure the field is enclosed and there are no other dogs around, because even though she is friendly and is trained to stay close-by I can’t assume her behaviors will be normal when her nervous system is on high alert like that. I make her run, because I want her body to be able to respond the way it wanted to, but couldn’t, the night before. I do not want her to hold that nervousness in her system, because it creates unnecessary and long-lasting effects to her health and temperament.

In a sense, we are all experiencing inescapable shock right now. We watch what’s happening in the world around us and every day we are hit with new information that leaves us feeling enraged, helpless and…locked inside our homes.

Many of my 1:1 clients have been telling me how tired and unmotivated they are, and I see this as a sign that our bodies are experiencing inescapable shock. I feel it, too. These times are unprecedented and even though it seems like we should be acting “business-as-usual”, business is most certainly not usual. 

And, just like the rats, the more we are hit with new and enraging information and the less we address it’s impact on us, the more exhausted and shut down we get. This is not one of those times we can just “push through it”, or “push our feelings aside”.

So, what do we do about it? Below is a list from my personal toolbox. I do my best to check some of these off throughout the week. It’s not cure-all, but I am still hanging-in over here!


1. Acknowledge the impact these events are having on you. We have survival mechanisms in place that spare us from trauma overload. They are avoidance tactics (mine has been shoving my face with food and watching documentaries on Netflix–thank you very much). Our mind tells us stories that “we are fine” and “things could always be worse”. That story discounts your current experience and the impact all of this is having on your nervous system.

2. Take a media detox. Turn off the news and social media. If something big happens, don’t worry, you will find out about it. I do not intend this to mean turn away from what’s happening, but give yourself breaks throughout the day/week. Your community is best served when you have the energy and wherewithal to step-up and act when it’s time to.

3. Move your body. Go for a bike ride. Walk up a hill. Shake it out! DANCE! Get the heart pumping and let those muscles do what they do. Just as I did with Luna after the fourth, give that stuck energy in your body some place to go, so it doesn’t stay stuck in you.

4. Get away from people and in to nature. Remember that you are connected to something so much greater and more powerful than this human experience. The ocean will always remind you of that.

5. Get creative. Make art. Plant a garden. Do something that inspires you. Get out of the analytical mind and into the abstract.

6. Laugh. Get in touch with the funniest person you know and talk about anything but current events–laugh your ass off. Watch a comedy. Remind your body what joy feels like.

7. Make time for active rest.  Active, meaning: not sleep. Sleep is one thing, rest is another. Active rest exercises the branch of your nervous system that overrides your fight or flight response. Lay on a hammock and watch a spider weave it’s web. Watch squirrels fling around the tree branches. Take a restorative yoga class.

8. Find ways to get personal touch. Touch is the language of compassion, and we could all use a little more of that right now. Organize a SAFE AND CONTROLLED pod of friends you can interact with, without the restrictions of distancing and masks. Link arms when you walk. Give each other a big hugs. Share hand, arm and shoulder massages. Comb each other’s hair (I know that last one sounds weird, but try it!)


I love you, and I think about you often. I always enjoy hearing from you, so drop me a note and let me know how you are doing.

If you feel as though you could use a little extra attention and support during this time, I am working virtually and have 1:1 client openings, drop me a line and let’s set something up.

If you want to join my mail list, you can do so here.

If you would like to read more about this and the effects trauma has on the body, check out The Body Keeps the Score* and Getting Our Bodies Back.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your love permeates your writing. Thank you for that.

    August 2, 2020

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