Understanding the Fight, Flight and Freeze Response in the Brain

I’ve spent a lot of time this past year studying and learning about the brain; how the different parts communicate and work together. I’ve researched, read, and talked to doctors & health professionals to learn more about how the brain works and how it can take control for us in a traumatic situation.

We’ve most likely all heard of the “Fight or Flight” response before. When there’s a threat ahead, a person decides to either fight back or run away. But what happens when a person’s brain knows they can’t successfully fight back or successfully flee the threat? How can it be possible that someone experiences a traumatic event (a natural disaster, an accident, war, assault, abuse, etc.) and afterwards, can’t remember exactly what happened?

That question just about killed me. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE that a person can’t recall what they just experienced? HOW IS IT POSSIBLE that a person, clear-headed, completely sober, who took precautions and tried to do everything “right,” can’t remember a single thing? Or maybe the person only remembers small, unimportant details of the event — a picture on the wall, a song that was playing… HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE AND WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?

Whenever there is a threat to a person’s survival, SURVIVAL becomes their brain’s priority. When the brain knows “its person” can’t fight back, and knows they can’t successfully flee the threat, the FREEZE RESPONSE takes action. Imagine a human having a deer-in-headlights reaction to a threat — it’s kind of like that.

When a person is posed with a threat, their brain is under a lot of pressure to keep them alive and is (understandably) pretty stressed out. In its efforts to keep the person as safe as possible, parts of the brain can shut down, and parts of the brain can make mistakes.

The Pre-Frontal Cortex‘s job is to control what a person pays attention to and block out other thoughts and things going on around them. In a state of fear, the pre-frontal cortex can shut down, leaving the Amygdala in control. Since this is not the amygdala’s primary job, some mix-ups can happen. The amygdala may choose to focus on an important detail of the experience, or it may choose to focus on something completely meaningless, creating fragmented memories. The Hippocampus tries to code and store all of these memories into their appropriate places, but as we know, things don’t always run their smoothest under stress. The hippocampus takes the fragmented memories, codes them as short term memories, and stores them as long term memories.

Can you see a problem here?

Everyone responds differently to experiencing a traumatic event. Some common effects are:

  • nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • panic attacks
  • insomnia
  • crying spells
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • intense fears
  • changes in appetite
  • depression
  • isolation
  • substance abuse
  • extreme mood changes
  • headaches
  • nausea

One of the most crucial steps to managing and recovering from the stressors following a traumatic event is a strong support system. This may include family members, friends, doctors, counselors and/or support groups. The person affected needs to feel comfortable communicating with, confiding in, and reaching out to these people for support when needed.

While I am certainly not an expert, my own personal experiences in life and recovery have fueled my interest in the subject.  Learning about the brain and how it works under stress and in trauma has been beneficial to me in my healing. If you or a loved one have experienced or witnessed a trauma, I encourage you to reach out to a counselor or doctor for further support.

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