One day, while happily walking in nature, I turned the corner on the trail and my eyes spotted a huge snake. Instantly, I froze. In just a few seconds, these kinds of thoughts went through my head:
OMG, I’m going to die.
I hope it’s not venomous.
Do I run? Or just stay frozen?
Please snake, just slither away already.
Please, God, I don’t want to go out this way!
On the physical side, my breathing and heart rate slowed down. I felt numb and time stopped. As soon as I saw that snake, my body automatically went into a stress (survival) response called “fight-flight-freeze”. That’s the autonomic nervous system doing its instinctual thing to protect me from perceived threats.
In those few moments after I saw the snake, my brain went into the “freeze” stress response, an active defensive response that puts “fight and flight” on hold temporarily. This “immobilization” gives me a few moments to decide what my next move is – fight that slithery serpent or flee for the hills!
Within just seconds, I decided to flee. After all, fighting a snake with bare hands just doesn’t make survival sense. I slowly stepped backwards and that snake slithered away, thankfully.
At the time, I didn’t think much about what was going on in my body. I was simply frozen in fear. But as I continue to learn about my body’s instinctual ability to help me survive threats, I’ve been observing various areas of my life on the mental and physical levels.
What do you think you would have done in that situation?
Fight, flee, or freeze?
You may be thinking, “Why should I care what my autonomous nervous system (ANS) is doing?”
But follow me here, because I think once you see how incredibly wise the body is, you’ll be able to see how your ANS is working FOR and maybe even AGAINST you.
For example, think of a time when you were in a heated argument with a partner, family member, or friend. In particular, think of a time when you sort of lost your rational mind in the argument and said or did things that you later regretted. Things you wouldn’t have ever done had you not been in that argument.
You have something in mind?
Since I use myself a lot in examples, let me show you how the nervous system tries to protect us during arguments.
I don’t like arguing, as I’m sure most of you don’t either. However, I’ve gotten into my fair share in relationships.
I’m a “freezer” during an argument. My partner tends to be the “fighter”.
Here’s a little scenario:
Partner: “I’d really like you to come to XXXX event with me Friday night.”
Me: “But I really don’t like going there. Why do you need me to go?”
Partner: “Because I do, and you said you’d start going to more community events with me.”
Me: “I know, but it’s been such a busy week and I was looking forward to relaxing Friday evening. Can’t you find someone else to go with you?”
Partner (obviously angry): “You always do this! You tell me one thing and then bail out! I feel like you’re never there for me when I need! You weren’t there when so and so got married. I had to go to Thanksgiving at Mom’s house alone, you…..”
Right about then, hearing angry vibrations directly aimed at me, my nervous system is detecting “DANGER, DANGER! THREAT, THREAT!” and goes into its preferred survival response:
My eyes gloss over, my body relaxes, and I go “elsewhere” in my mind. I’m there, but I’m not really there.
This is also known as “shut down”, “immobilization”, or disassociation in mental health terms.
Now, my partner at that time is in the “FIGHT” response. Their ANS is screaming “THREAT, THREAT! YOU HAVE TO FACE LIFE ALL ALONE, AGAIN!” Adrenaline and cortisol are released. The heart races, breath becomes shallow and faster, more oxygen pumps to the major muscles, in case fast action needs to occur, and more.
And here’s the thing.
Partners can love each other like crazy, but in what I call “trigger wars”, they are engaged as two activated, dysregulated, autonomic nervous systems in “survival mode”. The rational mind goes “offline” and we find ourselves operating from a cocktail of stress hormones, sometimes saying or doing things we later regret.
Now, I understand not all couples argue this way. The specific physiological reactions will largely depend on how you navigated your life as a baby/toddler/child. Typically, your survival responses started back then and carry over into adulthood.
Yes. The stress response CAN be overactive, as in the case of my partner and I.
This overactive (or over-reactive) response occurs when we are “triggered” by things we perceive as threatening, but they’re not really life threatening.
Like when this kind of thing happens:
“You never this and that and then you did that and you said this, but did that and OMG, I’m losing my mind because this always happens, etc.” (While smashing dishes on the kitchen floor)
These overactive survival responses are more common in those that have experience some sort of trauma, abuse, neglect, accidents, natural disasters, chronic stress, etc.
→ The brain will see the current “threat” and associate it with old “threats” (trauma) and OVER-react, thinking its survival is in danger.
Like when you’ve been rear-ended just after hearing a car sound its horn. Later, every time you hear a horn, your nervous system goes into a stress response, thinking its in danger.
According to the experts, the more dysfunctional the childhood, the more likely you developed a stronger ANS threat detector. Those that had a fairly safe, secure, warm, loving home atmosphere don’t find themselves struggling with intense “fight, fight, or freeze” responses to life’s stressors.
Sure, their nervous systems activate, but they are able to go into the stress response and come down quickly afterwards – without saying or doing things they regret.
Good news is that if you’re dealing with what you perceive to be an overactive stress response, there are techniques and treatments that can help, including:
Relaxation techniques are helpful for “deactivating” the stress response. You can:
If you find yourself in an overactive fight, flight, or freeze response and can’t seem to get it more in balance, reach out to a therapist.
Do you resonate with any of the following:
There are therapists that can help. Feel free to reach out and invest in yourself, because you are worth it, and you can address these issues and overcome them.
Do you resonate with “fight, flight, or freeze” when you perceive a threat or find yourself triggered?
Do you think your stress response is healthy or do you think it’s overactive?
My hope is that you have better insight as to what’s going on when you find yourself triggered, fearful, feeling anxious, etc. And, that there are some things you can do to work with your stress responses.
For further reading, here is a great article on the topic:
PREVIOUS POSTNegative Emotions: Friends or Foes?