Introduction to the Nervous System: Fight/Flight/Freeze

We are currently experiencing a global pandemic, which is a form of collective trauma.

Most people are used to associating the word trauma with things like the horrors of war combat, or possibly sexual assault or domestic violence.

While there are certain events which are likely to be traumatic no matter who experiences them, trauma is actually the result of what is happening inside your nervous system during the event, rather than the event itself.

Which is why two people can experience the same event, and once can be traumatized by it, and another is not.

This video is a great brief introduction to the human nervous system, which is actually divided into parts.

The part of the nervous system most closely related to trauma is called the sympathetic nervous system, which operates on the subconscious level.

The sympathetic nervous system in our bodies has evolved and adapted over generations to assess for threats and to respond in a way that will help us to survive, and to keep us safe from threats.

Most people are likely familiar with what is commonly called the “fight or flight” response. This response is present among all mammals, and was most beneficial when humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers. If you are hunting and start to be chased by a bear or mammoth, your first instinct will likely be to run away. Or, if you are cornered, you might go on the attack in an attempt to protect yourself.

The trouble is, right now we’re not being chased or attacked by a threat we can see. We know we’re in danger, but we are being asked to do the exact opposite of what our bodies want to do in a stressful situation – sit at home.

The above graphic is a pretty good illustration of the fight/flight/freeze stress responses and their impact on our bodies. Freeze is response people might be less familiar with. If you can’t run away from the bear, and you can’t fight back, you will freeze and collapse. Think of what happens to a mouse being chased by a cat. It’s also where we get the phrase “playing possum.” If the threat thinks you are dead already, it might leave you alone.

Your body has sensed a threat, and your nervous system is likely activated as a result. You might feel restless, anxious, be having trouble sleeping. You might feel irritable, or experience digestive issues or feel tightness in your chest. But there isn’t anything you can *do* to get away from this threat except stay inside.

So what now?

One possible coping mechanism is physical activity. Move your body. Lean into the fact that your body is in fight or flight mode. Go for a walk or a jog. Put on your favorite song and dance. Stomp your feet. Shake your arms. Scream if you can, it’s cathartic. (Just warn your roommates, or better yet, have them join in!)

This is also why people are baking bread. Knead some dough. Dig in the garden. Pull some weeds. Chop vegetables. Fill an empty gallon jug with water and use it as a weight. Do jumping jacks until you are out of breath.

You could also do something creative. Draw a picture. Really scribble like you’re making post-modern art. Make some playdough out of flour and water and create a sculpture. Learn to knit, crochet, or sew. There are plenty of YouTube video out there.

Do something every day that will let you move your body. This will release some of that energy and help your body release stress. Convince it you are running away from the bear. You’re probably *less* active right now than you were before, and spending more time sitting in front of screens. Get up once an hour and stretch, or just walk across the room and back. Tap your feet, use a stress ball. Clean out your closet, reorganize your drawers.

Just find a way to move your body every day. It will help.

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