Why is it important to understand stress responses?
Those who have experienced trauma often ask 'why did I do that' or 'could I have done anything differently'. We need to recognise that when we experience distress, our limbic system takes over. The limbic system is an autonomic system. It 'bypasses' the frontal lobe so we can act before we think and make life-saving decisions in a timely manner. In other words, however we responded to threats, we did not actively to choose to do so. This may help us relief ourselves from the shame and guilt we feel in relation to how we reacted to the traumatic event(s). Many call this the 'fight or flight' response. However, we now know there are 5 ways our bodies may respond to danger.
When we encounter a threat, we may choose to tackle it head on. If we think of our hunter-gathering ancestors, fighting is not only a way to protective ourselves, but also a way to gather life-saving resources.
Sometimes, our limbic system assessed the situation and decided it is the safest option of us to escape. Many reported that they extended themselves physically more than they thought they were capable of. This is because of our increased level of adrenaline at the face of a threat.
Have you ever been to an interview where you felt as if your brain was frozen and you could not think of anything to say? Freezing is yet another way our bodies respond to stress. Again, back in the hunter-gathering time, staying still in front of a tiger can mean that it cannot see us and the threat would be neutralised.
Have you heard of children wetting themselves or vomiting in the face of a traumatic experience? 'Flopping' refers to our attempts to make ourselves unappealing in the hopes that the predator no longer wants anything to do with us.
5. Fawn/ Friend
Last but not least, if a perceived power difference is present during the threat, we may choose to befriend the predator in order to stay safe. This is particularly common in children who experienced developmental trauma in the hands of trusted adults. If not treated appropriate, people who experienced developmental trauma may experience attachment difficulties later in life.
Why do I still notice myself respond with 5Fs when the threat is no longer present?
Our memories of the traumatic event(s) are stored in a small, primal part of our brain called the amygdala, as oppose to the hippocampus, where we store most of our memories. The amygdala remains in alert of any reminder of the traumatic event. Each time we encounter a reminder of the traumatic event, our amygdala interprets it as a threat, which triggers our trauma responses again. EMDR has been proven to be an effective way of processing traumatic memories so people can be free of trauma responses upon encountering triggers that reminded them of their traumatic experiences in the past. Click here to read more about EMDR.
Have you experienced fight, flight, freeze, flop or fawn when confronted with a difficult situation? How did you manage that? Let us know in the comment below!