Dealing with Trauma: Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

What’s your natural response? Most of us don’t know until we experience something intense enough to trigger the sympathetic response. For it is not you or I, that decides what to do or where to go in these moments of panic, no, it is the reptilian brain. By this, I mean the limbic system, the part of the brain that governs innate, human and animal instincts for survival. The limbic system is one of the first areas of the brain to form and acts to process emotions and respond to perceived threats. When a high emotional state is reached, the limbic system processes the experience as either negative (damaging or threatening) or positive (life enriching). Based on how experiences are filed away by the hippocampus into long term memory, the body adjusts its default responses to various forms of stimulation in order to better protect itself in the future.

Sounds pretty useful, eh? I would say so, but sometimes, the electrical shock sent through the nervous system can get stuck in the body and cause absolute havoc on the victim’s psychosomatic system for weeks or even years.

Let’s dive in to how this happens and what we can do about it.

In the sympathetic response, the body will do anything deemed necessary in order to survive. Sometimes this means mobilizing into fight or flight, and other times this looks like a state of paralysis in order to increase one’s chance for survival. When the response is triggered, normal functioning of the internal organs is shut off so that all of the body’s energy and attention can be directed towards immediate survival. An electrical charge surges through the body, and if you’re able to successfully fight or flee, this charge can be naturally expended within the experience itself. If there is any residual charge after the threat has passed, it is necessary for the body to clear it out before fully returning to the parasympathetic state of “rest and digest.”

In nature, we see this clearing process in animals, who purge after surviving an attack from a predator. Unfortunately, us humans sometimes allow our mind to get in the way of what the body needs. We want to be strong, so we try “holding it all together.”
We hold back the tears, restrain our shaking limbs, and try to keep the contents of our stomach in place, and in doing so, we literally hold the electrical shock within the body. So long as this shock is held, chronic stress endures, making it extremely difficult for our organs to sustain optimal function.

The freeze response has its own usefulness in nature, no doubt, but unlike fight or flight, the energy sent through the nervous system isn’t expended within the experience itself. All motion and action freezes, leaving the shock with nowhere to go. For this reason, it may be more common for people with an automatic freeze response to get stuck in a state of hyper vigilance and chronic stress after a traumatic event, but it can happen to the fighters and runners as well. In this state, a person will suffer from a variety of physiological issues and may become hyper-reactive to additional stresses, no matter how big or small they may be. Even if the mind has processed and moved beyond the stressful event, it may continue to linger in the body indefinitely without some kind of physical release.

So what do we do? How do we reset the nervous system and escape a vicious cycle of psychosomatic stress?

Truth is, there are many ways to reset the system, and it can even happen on its own, naturally and spontaneously! However, I find it most beneficial to engage with the process myself, intentionally, through different self-care techniques and healing modalities. The key is to address both ends of the spectrum… both body and mind.

Restorative and Yin Yoga postures have become a part of my daily routine to unwind and release stress from the body. Simply laying on your back, with both legs extended up against a wall, is a great posture for resetting the nervous system, and it’s easy to integrate into your morning or evening routine. Remain in the shape for 5-10 minutes as you focus on deep belly breathing. Belly breathing in itself, is an important, life-changing tool. As mentioned above, when we are holding on to something stressful, it shows up physically as a restraint on the digestive system. Expanding the belly fully with each inhale stimulates and encourages digestion to do its thing. It can be helpful to place one hand on your belly and one on your low back to feel more fully where and how the breath expands and flows through the body. Yes, you should even feel your low back expanding if you’re doing a full belly breath. It’s also okay if you don’t feel much movement initially. With continued practice and awareness, you will likely notice the breath growing bigger… you may even hear the stomach growl after a just few minutes of practice. This is a sign that its working!

Receiving professional bodywork and/or energy work will take this process of letting go a step further. Taking action and asking for support can sometimes feel difficult, but by doing just that, we signal to the subconscious mind that it is okay to let go, that we WANT to let go, and that we are going to do something proactive to bring ourselves back to balance. So long as trust is established in the client-therapist relationship, bringing a neutral party to the table provides a safe and supportive space for the recipient to fully surrender to the healing process. Massage, gentle touch, and even simple movements or gestures can help to loosen and move energetic blockages and holding patterns from the body.

Breathwork and meditation are also powerful tools for encouraging energetic flow through the body, which is essentially the goal when trying to clear a shock from the nervous system. I feel like this topic deserves its own blog post because there are SO many techniques out there. So for now, I simply encourage you to do some research and experimentation, and please feel free to reach out if you would like additional guidance.

Talking to a councilor or psychologist can also be helpful. Talking through an experience and getting outside point of views can alleviate and appease mental holding. If you find yourself actively thinking about the traumatic event over and over, that is a sign of mental holding. Every therapist has their own set of tools for mentally moving through trauma, and I encourage you to explore all the options available to you!

Beyond and alongside seeing a psychologist, a body worker, or an energy worker, starting up a regular Yoga Nidra practice can and will support release on all levels of body and mind. Check out the Yoga Nidra section on our website to learn more about how this practice works.

Lastly, it is important to note that the process of release can be uncomfortable when it involves a sort of “re-living” of the traumatic event. When engaging with your healing process, it is helpful to remain in a state of witness awareness. Don’t analyze what happened or get wrapped up in the story. Just watch as the body finds, embraces, and releases whatever biological messengers had been lost and left behind in your system. Remind yourself that you are safe and allow yourself to feel whatever you need in order to heal. Just as the breath rises and falls, so to does the wave of experience that will wash away any old, stagnant energies from the body and mind. Thank your nervous system for its service, and allow stuck or residual energy to freely flow back into the cosmos. The message of “fight, flight, or freeze” was well received and is no longer needed.

To learn more about this topic, check out ‘Waking the Tiger’ by Peter Levine.
Photo Credit: Ethan Lindhout from evrglomedia.com

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