Numbed Out, or Why the Opossum Plays Dead

Cartoon from the animal cartoonist named Jimmy over at theycantalk.com

Have you ever been in conflict with somebody who just checks out? Maybe you’re trying to explain yourself, make a point, or get them to understand something, but they aren’t responding. It’s like they aren’t listening…like they almost aren’t there at all.  

Maybe you’ve been that disengaged person. You feel like you’re out of body, somewhere up in the corner of the room, looking down on the conflict at hand. Somehow aware of, but not fully part of, the present issue. Maybe you even want to engage, but it’s like there’s nowhere to engage from. Like you’re both there and not there at the same time.  

It’s a normal survival reaction to numb out. In fact, it’s our nervous system’s most primal survival response. Fold into immobility. Play dead. Like the opossum. It’s actually quite effective as a last ditch effort, when fighting or fleeing hasn’t done the trick.

Imagine a cat playing with a mouse it’s caught. Cats are notoriously torturous to their kill. (Sorry to be so harsh, but it’s true!) If the mouse doesn’t move, it’s no fun for the cat. A few seconds in immobility for the mouse makes the cat lose interest. The cat looks away for a moment which gives the mouse a chance to come back online and make a break for it. Life saved, thanks to the mouse’s nervous system telling its body to fold, be immobile, play dead. Numb out.  

Humans are animals too, you know. Yes, we are evolved and conscious, capable of language and abstract thought, but we have the beating hearts and nervous systems of our animal cousins. Evolution is a building upon what’s come before. And thus, we as humans have primitive, reptilian wiring that our most evolved brain processing sometimes simply cannot override. So sometimes we fold. We numb out. We dissociate, split away from our feelings and experience. We do this to cope. It’s a survival instinct.  

Your body is also programmed to seek homeostasis. That is, to come back to a center of balance, of rest and digest. The active, calm, creative, and socially connected nervous system state of balance is in you, ready to be your baseline.

If you have trouble accessing this sense of alert calm, yoga can help to bring it about, as can safe environments with supportive people, talk therapy, and skillfully prescribed medication when needed. Regulation and peace is possible. As someone who has to work at this, I can say from experience that sustained effort is important. For me this is most often my yoga practice and journaling. I wonder if you’re like me and have to work at it too, what works for you?  

This all reminds me of yoga sutra 1.14, which I’ll paraphrase for you here:

Practice works when it’s done enthusiastically, without a break, and for a long period of time.

Wow! Talk about grounded life advice. Without a break?! But it’s true, isn’t it? Some things we just have to keep up with every damn day. There’s no getting around it – you have to brush your teeth. Might as well do it with a good attitude. 🙂

This week our focus in class is on finding a safe place in your body. The numbing out reaction distances a person from their felt sense of self, and therefore takes them a layer away from being connecting to their feelings, desires, and needs. If you can find just one safe place you feel inside, you’ve got ground to stand on. We’ll practice for this.  

Hope to see you in one of my three free Zoom classes soon!