Brookside Center for Counseling and Hypnotherapy
"Fight, Flight, or Freeze" Reactions, Ongoing Stress and Health
by Darling G. Villena-Mata, Ph.D., C.H.T.
The pictures captivate our eyes,
our hearts skip a beat
our breaths hold on to dear life
our bodies go numb
and yet find themselves activating at the highest alert
as we become witness to something
so terrible and hard to imagine
Will life be ever the same again?
On September 11, this nation and the rest of the world witnessed images and sounds too terrible for many of us to imagine. None of us will ever be the same again. These tragic events will be forever etched on our minds, as was Pearl Harbor for our parents and grandparents. We have become unwilling participants to the deaths and anguish seen first hand or via the media. We are now in the vortex of trauma and all its consequences. Fueled by terrorism, trauma breathes, not finishing its demise on September 11th.
The vast majority of us, we are not trained to handle crisis and life-threatening situations nor their aftermath. Even for those who are trained, many of the emergency response people, the firefighters, the police officers, other search and rescue personnel, and even debriefers--the events were beyond their scope of integration. The events shook us all. Eternal sighs have visited many of us.
This article is about the impact of 'fight, flight, or freeze' reactions which were set in motion on September 11, 2001. The 'fight, flight, freeze' (or fff for short-hand) was activated by our bodies when we became witness to the life-threatening situations. When a perceived life-threatening situation is present, the body's immune systems react in nanoseconds. The reaction starts a cascade of biochemical responses and activates the 'limbic' system of the brain (also known as the 'reptilian' brain). The body will be instructed to either hit, punch, duck and get out of the way, run, or other forms of fighting or fleeing behaviors. The body may even tell the person to pretend it is dead or to 'play possum' so as to avoid being a target to the predator. If the person successfully fights, flee, plays dead, then a possible shaking, gasps or sighs, shuddering, or other forms of release will occur at the end of that event. The likelihood for trauma onset is minimal, unless further incoming information tells of another attack. And once more, the body's immune systems will be activated for that event.
Most of us experienced second-hand trauma reaction or also known as witness trauma. In many ways, this is harder because our bodies are activated to fight, to flee, or to play dead. Yet we are at that moment physically out of harm's way. The bodies do not know that. They are simply responding to the input we give them via our senses. Incoming information from our governments via the media are telling us that there will be more life-threatening situations. The cases of anthrax serve to fuel the very threat of more attacks to come. The vast majority of our bodies will understandably will not go back to normal. Therefore stress becomes part of how we experience the world about us.
Stress is a form of 'fight, flight, and freeze' immune system reaction to a perceived life threatening situation or person. If the immune system is not told to 'stand down' or to go back to a non-crisis situation, it will continue to generate and maintain a 'high alert status' in the body. Stress keeps that alert going.
What to Expect
When 'fight, flight, or freeze' reactions are activated, the body's adrenaline is secreted and used for quick responses. A prolonged stress of any kind will deplete the adrenals if there is no support for the adrenal system.
Furthermore, our sense of listening will be skewed. We will subconsciously accentuate those words, tone of voice, and body movements of the speaker to anything that seems life-threatening to us. Any non-threatening words, tone of voice, and body movements may not even be noticed, especially if the listener is in a stressful condition or in high 'fight, flight, or freeze' mode. If this mode is the case, the neocortex part of the brain, or the reasoning part may not be fully engaged if at all. Reasoning with this kind of listener has very little chance for success.
If the person feels that the perpetrator might come back and if the person feels that he or she did not do such a great job of fighting that attacker off or of running away, then the person's body system will stay on alert and not go back to a non-crisis health status. Essentially that additional surge of energy becomes 'frozen' in the body. It is like a troop of pumped up soldiers waiting for action but nowhere to go. If they do not stand down and take some R&R (rest and relaxation), then those soldiers' pent-up energy may start to be used against inappropriate targets, namely, in this case parts of the body.
According to Sherry Kahn, M.P.H., "Adrenaline rushes into your bloodstream along with an abundance of sugar and fatty acids, giving you a surge of energy. Your heart pounds, your muscles contract and your breathing accelerates as you shift into 'flight or flight' gear."
Additionally, cholesterol levels will go up. I recall a doctor telling me that taking a cholesterol count before entering a hospital stay will give a false high reading. That doctor, and later other scientists explained to me that cholesterol is used as raw material to be transformed to the necessary chemicals needed during a 'high alert status.' The problem is that when there is no real threat (i.e. no one or no situation is directly actively threatening your body's life), that raw material does not get used. So the LDL amounts increases, unused.
If the body actively engages in fighting or fleeing, the cholesterol will be used and transformed to the necessary ingredients. The stockpiling goes down. This may account for why kickboxing or shadow boxing or running or cardiovascular paced walking help to reduce LDL counts.
Another area which is affected is decision and priority-making ability. Priority-making goes out the window, when overwhelming stress makes all items all number one, flooding the person with immobility, confusion, inability to make decisions--even small ones, possible outburst of emotions, and sometimes depression or even the kind of anger which seeks targets to blame.
In order to stop generating raw material of cholesterol and to regain the ability to decide and prioritize, it is important to do some preventive steps regarding stress. There are two kinds of stress: stress and eurstress. Stress is tied to life-threatening perception to our body, our pocketbook, our "ego's sense of self and existence," our emotions, and other aspects of who we are that perceives itself as being under attack.
Eurstress is a positive version of stress: getting a pay raise, falling in love, being happy, following your passion, petting a beloved animal, mutual hugging, having wonderful sex, savoring delicious food, doing something you enjoy, being of service to others, altruistic actions, and so on. Eurstress activities are perceived by the body as life-giving, not life threatening.
However, too much of eurstress can also lead to tiredness and might eventually negatively impact the body if the person does not temper his or her life with meditation, some form of prayers, breathwork, or some way of bringing peace or tranquility into the self. In some cultures moderation is the key to long life. Moderation does not mean "boring."
For those who come from dysfunctional homes and who have not done healing work and recovery, the high ups and lows of adrenaline rushes are addictive. Moderation therefore can be seen by those addicted to adrenalin and crisis as "boring" and "unimaginative."
Why bring this all up now after the attacks of 9.11? Do not be surprised, if, as part of your reactions, you find yourself changing your diet, getting too immersed in your work (which if not consciously checked can lead the person to be a workaholic), wanting to live the 'vida loca' or wanting to just withdraw from everything and everyone.
Stress can bring out our old coping ways. I recall that when I am extremely tired or under stress, I resort back to my first emotional language: Spanish. For me, there are more adjectives to describe my feelings and thoughts in that language than English. People who are trained to be linear or business in their communication styles may find themselves going back to their more comfortable way of speaking--circular communication and storytelling to share and describe their feelings and observations. Also, regression to ways that were not healthy might occur. Those in recovery can be at risk and slip back to old patterns. Or stress can be seen as an opportunity to do 'spring cleaning' in how we lead our lives and what matters to us.
People who view life in possibilities and spectrum of colors may slip to experiencing their world in "black and white," "either/or," "us versus them," "right or wrong." Under the perception of life-threatening events, the brain's limbic system where "fight, flight, and freeze" decisions are made, time is seen as an "enemy" because quick decisions need to be made. No deep investigations occur at this time since those actions require time. There appears to be 'no time' to assess possibilities that appear outside of the 'box' of categories and immediate fixes. Additionally, if people are not trained or educated in how to discern what is a trigger for impending threats, or what are reminders of past traumas, or what are not true triggers, then they short-change themselves in having proper tools to make appropriate assessments. Emergency workers, firefighters, police officers, and others that deal with crisis are trained extensively to discern or differentiate what is truly threatening and what is a memory inducer. Furthermore after the crisis, debriefing (different from psychotherapy) is given to those first line crisis workers. The average public is not so debriefed. Therefore, it is important for non-crisis trained people to learn and understand the dynamics of 'fight, flight, or freeze,' as well as to get debriefed (if immediately after the crisis), grief or trauma counseling (if past traumas get stimulated as well), or other modes of healing (if the symptoms of "fight, flight, freeze" are still ongoing).
No one who stays or wants to be healthy does it alone. It is a team effort out in the field. And it has to be a team effort with the public too--with each of us assisting each other with whatever gifts we have and seeking professional assistance for ourselves and others when needed. During great times of crisis, nations' peoples that have survived have been those who helped each other and who assisted one another in prioritizing what really matters. In these cases, time has been used as an ally and friend to have people get to know each other, their neighbors, their communities, and how they could help themselves and others. Stress gets reduced and our health improves.
During this time in history, 'fight, flight, freeze' reactions will be needed. However, it is important to help our bodies understand when those reactions are needed and at what level. (from red, yellow, to non-crisis). Otherwise, our overall health will be affected, especially our immune systems.
Life will never be the same; it will be different.
As the 'fight, flight, freeze' energy dissipates,
we shudder and shake,
gasp and gulp.
Our bodies experience sensations of
cold and hot
as the energy leaves us
to be more of who we are
shaken but not stirred
from who we are.
Dr. Villena-Mata may be reached at email@example.com
(Reprinted with permission of CirclePoint)
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