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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Hoekstra, PsyD, LP DBSM

The Imprint of Anxiety: Fight, Flight, and Healing from Trauma

The human body possesses a remarkable survival mechanism known as the fight-or-flight response. This involuntary reaction, orchestrated by the sympathetic nervous system, throws the body into a state of high alert when faced with perceived danger. It's an evolutionary gift, ensuring our ancestors reacted swiftly to threats such as a charging predator or an enemy. But what happens when this survival mechanism gets stuck on overdrive because of unresolved trauma?

Trauma, by definition, is an experience that overwhelms our ability to cope. It can be a single, horrific event or a series of chronic stressors. When trauma occurs, the fight-or-flight response becomes hyper-sensitized. Everyday situations that hold no real threat can trigger a cascade of physiological changes – rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, tense muscles – preparing us for a fight that isn't there. This can manifest as anxiety, anger, or even withdrawal from social interactions. It can be freezing in place, unable to move or say words out loud to voice our needs and demands.

Here's a breakdown of the three responses:

  • Fight: Your body prepares to confront the threat, with increased heart rate, adrenaline surge, and muscle tension.

  • Flight: Your body prioritizes escape, with heightened alertness, increased agility, and the urge to run away.

  • Freeze: Your body shuts down non-essential functions, making you appear still and sometimes even disoriented. This might be a way to avoid detection by a predator.

The problem with a trauma-induced fight-or-flight response is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The constant state of high alert makes it difficult to relax and use healthy coping mechanisms. Sleep suffers, concentration breaks, irritability escalates, and relationships become strained.

The good news is that the body's remarkable adaptability extends to healing from trauma.

Here are some ways to break free from the grip of a persistent fight-or-flight response:

  • Acknowledge and validate the trauma:  The first step towards healing is acknowledging the experience and its impact. Suppressing emotions only strengthens their hold. Talking to a therapist or joining a support group can provide a safe space for processing the trauma.

  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms: When the body feels overwhelmed, it craves tools to calm the nervous system. Practices like mindfulness meditation, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the body's relaxation response.

  • Seek professional help: Trauma can be a complex issue, and therapy can be an invaluable resource. Therapists can employ various techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to help individuals reframe negative thought patterns and process traumatic memories.

  • Embrace self-care: Prioritizing activities that promote overall well-being is crucial. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and enough sleep all contribute to a more resilient nervous system.

  • Reconnect with the body:  Trauma can create a disconnect between the mind and body. Activities that promote body awareness and body grounding, such as yoga or tai chi, can help individuals reconnect with their physical sensations and learn to trust their bodies again.

The road to healing from trauma is a journey, not a destination. By understanding the fight-or-flight response and employing these strategies, we can empower ourselves to move beyond the limitations of trauma and embrace a life filled with greater peace and resilience.

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