Fight, Flight, and Freezing

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Lost in Space: The author during a fight/flight/freezing episode

When I first realized that the symptoms I was experiencing were not due to a deadly, chronic ailment, but due, instead, to an overactive, nonstop “fight or flight” response, it was a revelation. How could this be? How could symptoms of dissociation, insomnia, strange bodily sensations such as tingling and “electricity flowing through every nerve of my body” be something other than a serious illness? Many of the answers to what I was experiencing were in the illuminating,  groundbreaking book, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences by Peter Levine. I experienced all stages of the body’s survival mechanism: fight, flight, and freezing, and they were nothing short of terrifying. I eventually came through to the other side, but not without a great deal of help and support, meditation, exercise, therapy, and a lot of other tools, including extensive research into what was happening inside my head.

Before anything else, we are, all of us, animals first. Levine’s premise is based on the fact that our bodies and brains evolved a very intimate connection (involving the vagus nerve, which transmits signals back and forth between the body and the brain). We evolved the ability to detect and respond to threats–a trait that is shared in animals as well.  Unlike animals, though, humans have a more difficult time “discharging” or “resolving” trauma, because we tend to carry it throughout our lives (whereas with animals, trauma is more naturally, and quickly, resolved). This trauma can lead to decreased health and happiness if it becomes more present in our daily lives. It can, in fact, can take over our lives, impeding, and in some cases, destroying the quality of life or the life itself.

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This kitty can fight and flee, but we mostly have no need to fear it…

Fight or Flight? Not much needed today, but the brain doesn’t much care… Fight or flight can be generally summarized as the body’s and brain’s innate ability to “shut down” non-critical systems (need for food, shelter, comfort) to harness all  energy and systems to deal with an imminent (or perceived) threat, such as being attacked by a animal or some other threat to survival. This ancient tendency evolved to ensure survival of species (all of them, actually) and ensured the survival of our ancestors (and their genes’ propensity toward fear/anxiety/survival). Today, in the modern brain, however, this ancient capability (which is still very much within us, in the most “ancient” parts of the brain) can be the “threat” itself to the health and well being of an individuals–especially to those who are prone to anxiety, have been traumatized, or under extreme duress from a variety of threats. The fight or flight mode does a variety of things to you:

When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear. [source: Mayo Clinic]

Most people and animals resolve this stress fairly quickly and “return to normal.” However, for some people, the threat(s) remains, stuck in the brains of those who obsess, those who have been traumatized repeatedly or at some point in their early lives, or those who have a predisposition to fear for any number of reasons. Most of the time, the body’s response system reverts back to a “balanced” stasis–that is, the stress-response system usually usually returns to normal mode: once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal. Exercise, other distractions (or for some with an inherent “resilient” capacity to handle stress) return to “pre-stress trigger” mode. But when stressors are always present–through real experience (e.g., war, sexual abuse, or other traumatizing event of some kind) or innate or developed fears (e.g., phobias about health, social situations, other myriad anxieties), your brain perceives that the body is constantly  under attack. In these cases, the  fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. This is what I refer to as a “negative feedback loop” wherein you feel stressed, cannot resolve it, and the stresss increases as the feelings of anxiety or stress are exacerbated. Over time, the constant alert of the stress-response system (and its associated elevated levels of  cortisol and adrenalin) can puts you at increased risk for many health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment
  • Miscellaneous somatic symptoms (too many to list here)

When it’s not the heat of fight or flight, it’s downright Freezing. One of the other aspects of fight or flight that isn’t as well known is sometimes referred to as freezing. Sometimes when animals are attacked, they simply go limp. This is also part of the body’s survival mechanism. When caught, rather than struggle, an antelope in a tiger’s jaws will simply go limp; the body goes into an almost comatose static mode. This is done for a few reasons: if the predator thinks the animal is already dead, the meat might be tainted somehow. Also, if the predator drops the prey, the brain can, suddenly, revive the body and the antelope may have a chance to quickly awaken and bound away. With humans, it’s a different, often tragic story. Those who are “frozen,” feel like they’re not connected to their bodies–this is known sometimes as being disembodied or dissociation. As Dr. Levine explains in an interview with psychotherapty.net:

PL: These [body’s] systems are orchestrated by the primitive structures in our brainstem—the upper part of the brainstem. They’re instinctive and they’re almost reflexive. The tonic immobility is the most primitive system, and it spans probably over 500 million years. It is a combination of freezing and collapsing—the muscles go limp, the person is left without any energy. The next in evolutionary development is the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response. And this system evolved from the reptilian period which was about 300 million years ago. And its function is enhanced action, and, as I said, fight-or-flight. Finally the third and most recent system is the social engagement system, and this occurs only in mammals. Its purpose is to drive social engagement—making friends—in order to defuse the aggression or tension.
VY: So this is when we’re feeling threatened or stressed we want to talk to our friends and family?
PL: Yeah, exactly. Or if somebody’s really angry at us, we want to explain what happened so they don’t strike out at us. Obviously most people won’t strike out, but we’re still hardwired for those kinds of expectations.
VY: Most people have a general sense of the fight-or-flight, but would you just say a few words on it?
PL: Basically, in the fight-or-flight response, the objective is to get away from the source of threat. All of our muscles prepare for this escape by increasing their tension level, our heart rate and respiration increase, and our whole basic metabolic system is flooded with adrenaline. Blood is diverted to the muscles, away from the viscera. The goal is to run away, or if we feel that we can’t escape or if we perceive that the individual that’s trying to attack us is less strong than we are, to attack them. Or if we’re cornered by a predator—in other words, if there’s no way to escape—then we’ll fight back. Now, if none of those procedures are effective, and it looks like we’re going to be killed, we go into the shock state, the tonic immobility.

heart new2Levine argues that the “energy” built up from trauma is “trapped” inside a person’s body, and they need to release it in order to complete, or resolve the fight/flight/freezing response. In referring to a patient who had been traumatized by surgery and felt trapped, Levine explains further about the need to release this energy.

VY: So getting back to Nancy, from what you observed and what you learned from the animals’ various responses, what was your understanding of what happened with Nancy and what you did that was actually helpful?
PL: What was helpful is that her body learned that in that time of overwhelming threat she could not defend herself. She lost all of her power. Her muscles were all tight. She was struggling to get away—this was the flight response—to get out of that, to get away from those people who were holding her down and to run out of the room and back to her parents. I mean, that’s what her body wanted to do, her body needed to do—to get out of there and get back to where she could be protected. So what happened is all of this activation, this “energy” that was locked into her body when she was trying to escape and then was overwhelmed, was still there in a latent form. When we’re overwhelmed like that, the energy just doesn’t go away—it gets locked very deeply in the body. That’s the key. It gets locked in the muscles.
MY: And that’s the foundation of your understanding of trauma—this locking of energy?
PL: That’s right, exactly. How the energy, how this activation gets locked in the body and in the nervous system.
MY: And so your objective is to help the person release that energy?
PL: Yes, to release that energy, but also to re-channel that energy into an active response, so then the body has a response of power, of its own capacity to regulate, and the person comes out of this shutdown state into a process in which they re-own their own vital energy—we use the term “life energy.” It’s not generally used in psychology but I think it’s a term that is profound in people’s health, that people feel that they have the energy to live their life fully, and that they have the capacity to direct this energy in powerful and productive ways.

It’s pretty clear to me that this is what’s happening to vets who return to the states (as Brainlinemilitary.org explains). Levine describes people who are in this “shock state” as being living zombies, disconnected from family, friends, familiar comforts–and actually unable to receive any of these things (the ability to experience these good things having been, in essence, “turned off” in service of the survival mechanism). It’s not just vets, of course. People are often traumatized and stressed by ordinary life experiences, obsessions developed over years, continuous stresses of modern life. There is no one panacea for helping the stressed, anxious, or otherwise mentally wounded, but Levin’s writings are an excellent explanation of how the brain-body connection works when it comes to trauma and stress, and what people can do to help themselves regain emotional, mental, and physical stability. Levine is a therapist, and as such, strongly urges those who experience trauma to engage with therapists who are skilled at the craft of helping patients with somatic experiencing. He himself doesn’t appear to be a “big fan” of meditation, per se, as an approach for dealing with trauma because it can, in his words:

The thing about meditation, though…. With some kinds of trauma, meditation is helpful. But the problem is when people go into their inner landscape and they’re not prepared and they’re not guided, sooner or later they encounter the trauma, and then what do they do? They could be overwhelmed with it, or they find a way to go away from the trauma. And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it’s really an ungrounded bliss state. I call that the bliss bypass. And they go sometimes into something that resembles a bliss state. But it’s really an ungrounded bliss state.

Conclusions. Levine is a brilliant therapist and researcher of the brain with decades of experience. His explanations of fight/flight/freezing are extremely informative. But his descriptions for resolving trauma can seem esoteric and academic, at points. Wellness and health are hard to come by alone, and Levine’s trademarked Somatic Experiencing method of therapy is available from practitioners as his site traaumahealing.com explains:

Somatic Experiencing® is a body-awareness approach to trauma being taught throughout the world. It is the result of over forty years of observation, research, and hands-on development by Dr. Levine. Based upon the realization that human beings have an innate ability to overcome the effects of trauma, Somatic Experiencing has touched the lives of many thousands. SE® restores self-regulation, and returns a sense of aliveness, relaxation and wholeness to traumatized individuals who have had these precious gifts taken away. Peter has applied his work to combat veterans, rape survivors, Holocaust survivors, auto accident and post surgical trauma, chronic pain sufferers, and even to infants after suffering traumatic births. This is the primary website for the SE training, support of health professionals in Somatic Experiencing® and connecting trauma victims to the approximately 5,000 SE® Practitioners across the globe.

Resources. There are many many resources available to help people who are in stressful “negative loops” of anxiety ranging from apps and explanations on how to meditate for calming to therapists available to talk in real time 24/7. Levine’s site, again, is traaumahealing.com. Stay tuned to this blog for more resources on relieving stress and anxiety. One size does not fit all, however, and finding what works best for one person may not work for another. Until then, check out our “listening” resources page.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

The Ancient Brain Team

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