Your Ability to Respond to Threat is a Life-saver.
But if you Get “Frozen” There, You May Have PTSD.
You are walking alone on a mountain trail at dusk, returning to your car a little later than you’d planned. You’ve always known it’s bear and cougar country, but you’ve never had a bad experience with a wild animal, so you’re not concerned.
Suddenly, you hear a loud snap of a twig behind you. Your heart rate increases; eyesight and hearing become more acute; your head whips around towards the sound, and your muscles tighten as blood flow to them increases. Without conscious thought, you instantly assess the possible threat and choose to flee or fight.
You may have picked up a stone or limb as a weapon or begun to run before you even think. Reading this you may have noticed increased heart and respiration rate, a tingling of the skin, increased perspiration, and a sense of alertness. Your imagination just now may have offered images of escape routes or ways you could fight off the imagined attack.
Highly stressful or life-threatening experiences arouse vast amounts of survival energy and emotion — the well-known fight-or-flight response, shared with all animals. Our lower or reptilian brain and sympathetic nervous system arouses instantly to maximize our chance of survival. Merely thinking about such a situation activates the same responses. When it takes control, our bodies respond far more rapidly than normally to assess the danger and to fight or flight.
Your nervous system’s response to threat has worked quite well. The proof is that you’re alive and reading this.
We can remember what animals never forgot.
Think of an animal in the wild — a rabbit, for example. It may be calmly eating one moment at the edge of a meadow, and running for its life from a wolf the next. Imagine if that happened to you! That would be pretty traumatic, having a hungry animal determined to catch, kill, and eat you! Yet if the rabbit escapes, then within minutes it will be back to normal life, not traumatized.
Those who have been able to closely observe wild animals notice that during the time immediately following such a chase, a prey animal will “discharge” that powerful “flight-fight” energy by twitching, shaking, jumping, running around vigorously, even making some noise or head-butting some of its own kind in mock-battle. After such discharge, the animal returns to normal.
Were it not for this ability to rapidly discharge adrenalin and excess survival energy, the animal’s ability to meet future threats would be reduced and they would not long survive in the wild.
People can get “frozen” in an incomplete biological response to unavoidable threat. That is PTSD.
But there is a difference between such responses in modern humans and animals. Even though animals in the wild routinely experience life-threatening situations, after the danger has passed, they quickly return to normal, whereas humans sometimes are stuck with trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In other words, they are stuck in some combination of the nervous system’s fight, flight or freeze response.
It is like having both the accelerator pedal and the brake pedal pressed to the floor at the same time. The person may think they got over the experience, but if they were unable to avoid the danger and didn’t have support to shake off the strong charge of sensations and emotions afterward, that vast amount of survival energy can become stuck in their nervous systems. Weeks, months, or years later, often without even a conscious connection to the traumatic experience, many different kinds of symptoms may appear.
Such symptoms are normal for a person with an over-stressed nervous system. They have lost resiliency, the natural ability to flow easily between the many moods and energy states necessary to live a full and rich life.