Fight or Flight?

For this month’s article, I wanted to talk a bit about the human responses that are likely to occur during exposure to traumatic stress. These responses are neither random, nor voluntary, but they follow a pattern that has conferred the best chances for survival over countless generations. I’m talking about the “fight or flight” response. It’s a term coined over a hundred years ago by the stress research pioneer, Dr. Walter Cannon. He discovered that the human response to stress followed a predictable pattern. Other researchers have added to that early research, to include “freeze” as an additional response.

These three responses, “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”, can be viewed as human survival mechanisms that activate without any conscious input on our part, through a process called “neuroception”. This fancy word, coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, refers to a built-in sensory system that operates outside of our conscious thought, and steps in to quickly assess any threat to determine the response that will be most likely to ensure our survival. To a certain extent, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder can be understood as the continued activation of this system after the actual threat is no longer present. What determines the level of danger that will trigger a stress response varies from one individual to another, depending upon past experiences and resiliency factors.

Treatment of PTSD and other stress disorders will typically include some form of desensitization and resiliency training as part of therapy. In addition to the “Fight, Flight, and Freeze” responses to stress, I’d like to include a 4th response: “Functioning”, which describes a response that is guided by conscious input. Restoring positive “Functioning” over a wide range of anticipated situations and circumstances is an important goal of therapy, and one which will restore healthy responses to everyday stress.

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