When you experience a traumatic event, your body will have an automatic reaction, known as the fight-flight-freeze response. You cannot control this reaction; it is your body’s way of surviving. However, even after a traumatic event has already happened, your body can get “stuck” in automatic reactions, your brain, and body consistently in survival mode. Further exploring what this response entails can help you explore healthy coping mechanisms to help you move past your response to trauma and effectively handle the traumatic event.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
The body’s fight-or-flight response is an automatic, built-in system in the body that protects you from threat or danger. The body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated by a sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system then activates the adrenal glands, which trigger the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. This chain of events then creates increased heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
When your body prepares for a threat with its fight-or-flight response, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can be helpful, making it more likely you will effectively cope with the threat. However, this is not always the case.
The Third Response: Freeze
Many people know their body has a fight-or-flight response but have little knowledge of the freeze response. Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where your body further prepares to protect itself. The freeze response is also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It involves similar physiological changes as the fight-or-flight response, but instead, you stay completely still and get ready for the next move. During the freeze response, you may experience:
- Feeling stuck in a specific part of the body
- Feeling cold or numb
- Physical stiffness or heaviness of limbs
- Decreased heart rate
- Restricted breathing or holding of the breath
- A sense of dread or foreboding
The freeze response happens when mobilization during a perceived threat is not an option. Just like fight and flight, freezing is not something you can easily control, as it is a subconscious decision amid fear and anxiety. Many people struggle when this reaction occurs because, often, they are laden with guilt due to them feeling like they could have done something more during a traumatic event.
Sometimes, the flight-fight-freeze response can be overactive, which happens when non-threatening situations trigger a response. Overactive responses are extremely common in people who have experienced trauma.
After a traumatic event, you may develop an exaggerated stress response. This overactive stress response involves a recurring pattern of reactions related to the initial traumatic event. By overreacting, your brain is preparing you for future traumatic events. For example, you may have trauma from a car accident, and the sound of a car horn reminds you of the event. When you hear a car honking, you may have a stress response as your body prepares for what it thinks will be another accident.
Activities that promote relaxation can counteract stress responses. Common relaxation techniques may include:
- Deep abdominal breathing
- Focusing on a calming word
- Visualizing peaceful images
When you regularly practice these techniques, you can improve your automatic trauma responses.
Regular exercise can also help you cope with automatic trauma responses. Physical activity can help reduce trauma responses by decreasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise can also increase endorphins, improve calm feelings, and promote better sleep — all of which might be affected by your trauma responses. The benefits of regular exercise can help increase your mood and sense of relaxation, which helps you cope better.
Healthy social relationships can help you move past your automatic trauma responses. Social support can help minimize psychological and physiological reactions to perceived threats and provide a sense of safety and protection. Your social support may include:
- Significant others
When to See a Professional
If you sense that you may be in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze, it may be time to seek help from a professional. You may be experiencing automatic trauma responses if you experience:
- Always feeling ”on edge”
- Persistent worry, nervousness, or fear
- Stress that interferes with daily activities
- Fear of non-threatening situations
- Inability to relax
A mental health professional can help you determine the underlying trauma behind these reactions and heal through various therapies such as somatic experiencing and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). They can also help you create a plan to reduce your automatic trauma response depending on your symptoms and mental health history.
Automatic trauma responses are how our bodies handle and react to perceived threats after a traumatic event. There is no right or wrong way to respond to threats, trauma, anxiety, and fear. Everyone responds differently, sometimes experiencing all three reactions — fight, flight, and freeze — one after the next. Here at West Coast Recovery Centers, we understand how difficult it can be to deal with trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other problems your traumatic event might have created for you. We would be honored to help you move past your trauma and live your life healthily and to the fullest degree possible. We offer many options to help you cope, including holistic and traditional approaches. For more information on our program and how we can help you heal, reach out to West Coast Recovery Centers at (760) 492-6509. With West Coast Recovery Centers, you are not alone. Let us help you get on the path to healing today.