What Happens During the Flight, Fight or Freeze Response?
When we become threatened, we experience a surge of chemicals designed to allow us to survive through whatever the event is. The physiological effects are increased adrenaline, acceleration of heart and lung action, shaking, dilation of pupils and more. Cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” is an integral part of our body’s “fight, flight or freeze” response. The fight, flight or freeze response is essentially a state of acute stress. While stress is usually seen as a negative, it is beneficial if we need the surge of chemicals to help us fight, flight or freeze to avoid danger. However, it is only useful in short bursts. Many of us get caught in this perpetual state, never releasing it from our system and returning to normal, or homeostasis.
In fact, living in this kind of biological survival state can make us more vulnerable to common physical ailments that are related to or triggered by stress: cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
How Can We Correct the Fight, Flight or Freeze Pattern?
Animals in the wilderness shake, tremble, run, or do other physical activities to discharge the effect of these stress chemicals on their body. The natural human tendency is to do this too. But, we are often told (by ourselves or others) to “calm down,” “get it together,” “stop being so sensitive,” and “be a big boy/girl and suck it up.”
When we purge the survival chemicals after a trauma, it shows our primitive brain that we survived and we are safe. This sends a signal to the cognitive brain to process the information and throw out the irrelevant associations related to it. Facing and surviving a trauma, if discharged in a healthy way, can actually help us feel more empowered and able to handle things in the future. It can create a sense of security even.
If we don’t discharge the trauma though, the primitive brain freezes the event in our systems. Anything in the future that reminds of us this original event, can trigger further responses.