Triggering: Fight, Flight Or Freeze

Jul 12, 2017 | Blog

The instinct of self-preservation is built into every living organism on our planet. This instinct is manifested in numerous ways including our defensive: fight, flight or freeze response. This defense mechanism is one of the most primitive and autonomic adaptations in our bodies. This response system is directly wired to the oldest (on an evolutionary scale) portions of our brain/nervous system. The fight, flight, freeze response is activated when we feel we are in immediate danger.

Imagine you are walking down the street and decided to cross. Suddenly, as you step out, a car comes rushing by and barely misses hitting you. At this moment, your body will have activated its self-preservation systems: increasing cortisol and adrenaline, speeding up your heart rate, increasing your breath rate and tensing your muscles for action, while your digestion system and cognitive systems decrease activity. All of this activity being orchestrated by your sympathetic nervous system. Once the danger passes it is the rile of your parasympathetic system to balance things back to homeostasis.

In the wild, animals complete this balance by first exerting their bodies either having run or simply shaking it out. Our bodies will attempt to do this naturally which is why we tend to shake after a large cortisol and adrenaline rush, specifically when the fight, flight, freeze response is activated. This is a distinct difference from adrenaline rush from events which are joyful yet increase our adrenaline due to the combination of cortisol and adrenaline. During recovery from the event our, heart rate slows down, digestion resumes, and dopamine and serotonin are released into the brain and nervous system.

Peter Levine, the developer of an approach to trauma treatment called Somatic Experiencing: Trauma, argues Levine, is “‘locked’ in the body, and it’s in the body that it must be accessed and healed.” PTSD, he argues, is “fundamentally a highly activated, incomplete, biological response to the threat, frozen in time.” All animals, including humans, are physically programmed by evolution to flee, fight, or freeze in the face of grave threats to life and limb. But in humans, when these natural responses to danger are thwarted and people are helpless to prevent their own rape or beating, or car accident, the unfinished defensive actions become blocked as undischarged energy in their nervous systems. They remain physiologically frozen in an “unfinished” state of high biological readiness to react to the traumatic event, even long after the event has passed. The undischarged energy of the blocked response to the trauma eventually metastasizes into the full-fledged panoply of PTSD symptoms. Levine believes that psychological trauma is very much about action interrupts, which the traumatized human organism still needs to complete (reference).

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