It is very important to understand how the stress or trauma response works in our bodies. In our human form there is an incredible security system to keep this body safe. This security system is often known as the ‘stress’ or ‘trauma’ response and incorporates two ways of responding to a threat. These two responses are the fight and flight or freeze and fold .
To put it simply, in nature when there is a threat the lion has strength so he uses the fight response, while the horse has speed so he uses the flight response and flees. The first attempts to avoid harm is by mobilising.If the fight or flight response has not avoided the threat there may be an escalation to the freeze and fold response which immobilises. In other words a deer may first try to outrun the predator than if this fails the freeze response is triggered in a desperate attempt to survive.
It is important to understand that this occurs at a deeply subconscious instinctual level in the autonomic nervous system where the limbic system of the brain takes over for survival.
However In everyday life a level of these responses, or the body’s memory of how to respond to a threat can be triggered by events, situations or encounters. Which way would you respond in this example?
If prior to this pictured event you experienced a previous verbal attack where you said something back in a fight response and it escalated into being punched, your body may very quickly go to freeze response and shut down in an attempt to be alright even though in this situation you may not actually be at risk of being punched.
When the fight and flight response is activated adrenaline is released in the body to mobilise very quickly. The body sends blood to the large muscles in the legs and arms, away from the gut, so action can be taken. In the instance where action is needed and taken the adrenaline is burnt off, however when action is not necessary, it isn’t and this can be problematic and you can be left feeling restless or have difficulty sleeping. Individuals who struggle with chronic fatigue or illnesses such as fibromyalgia may have overused the fight or flight responses and have exhausted their systems.
In the freeze and fold response the nervous system shuts breathing down to a minimum; chemicals are released to paralyse the body so it appears lifeless. Like the startled deer in headlights, they just freeze and don’t move. In a frozen, folded state the prey may fool the predator as they appear dead and predators usually hunt live prey.
In nature animals do what is known as the ‘shake off’ where they have a type of seizure and the trauma response is released and e.g. the deer goes off to eat grass. In our human experience we can struggle to release this response easily and it can plague individuals when there is any hint of threat that links to an initial trauma.
In our evolution the limbic system, the inner brain formed which is where safety and survival is controlled from. There are two parts of the limbic brain, the reptilian, the more ancient of the two and the mammalian which came later. Social skills came with the forming of the mammalian system. Generally adult trauma can trigger the mammalian limbic system leaving some social skills intact; however childhood trauma often triggers the more ancient reptilian limbic system leaving the individual unable to communicate effectively or even ask for help.
It is important to be compassionate for our normal functioning as a human being, in the event of a threat the nervous system and body are simply doing what it is wired to do to protect us. Any judgement of ourselves only creates a further sense of being unsafe and this is not supportive or helpful. We do have the capacity to ‘shake off’, to heal the effects of the trauma responses and this is very important for our general well being and to become empowered in our lives.
Note: There are a number of good resources available electronically and in text book form about the neurobiological response in the human body. References to the trauma response in this post are a culmination from such resources. I would highly recommend Bessel Van Der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score and Stephen Porges Book, The Polyvagal Theory. Peter Levine’s books, In An Unspoken Voice and Walking the Tiger are excellent in regards to understanding and healing trauma.
For more information or to make an appointment contact Kate at Jesmry Counselling Ph: 02 60431232 Mobile: 0410046148 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org