PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

Hi again!

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve discussed so far: reflex learns as a result of your experiences; but reflex isn’t very smart, so what it learns as “predictors of danger” is a mixed bag of good predictors and random stuff that was going on at the time that the danger happened.

Today we’ll discuss why reflex doesn’t bother filtering good from bad predictors of danger before learning them: because reflex values speed over accuracy.

To illustrate, let’s revisit our old friend, Dave the zebra.

Dave and his zebra friends are out enjoying some delicious pasture.

(I know – last we saw Dave, he was avoiding pasture, because of what happened to George. But he got help for that, and now he’s doing much better. He says thanks for asking.)

Dave catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye that might be a furry tail, like the lion’s. But he only got a glimpse, and he’s not sure.

What should he do – raise the alarm, or try to get a better look?

On the one hand, he didn’t get a good look, it could be nothing, and those other zebras can be pretty snooty if he gets it wrong.

On the other hand, taking a closer look wastes precious seconds that could be better spent getting everyone to safety.

Folks – from the viewpoint of your survival reflex, the only thing that matters is survival. Your survival reflex assumes that it’s better to make a fool of yourself by overreacting, than to hesitate and waste a second.

So – reflex learns by the principle of “better safe than sorry”, and reacts by that same principle.

This will lead to a lot of situations where your survival reflex will be convinced that you’re in life-threatening danger, even though you’re not. It’s reacting to a reminder, even if that reminder doesn’t make any sense to your “thinking” brain.

We’ve discussed how you can have a reaction to a trigger even when you understand that there’s no real danger; we’ve covered how important it is to NOT beat yourself up over this, because it’s an injury and not a personal failing or character flaw.

What you can do instead is use this knowledge to help yourself regain a sense of calm: when you’re triggered, the reaction can make it feel like the danger is very real. So it becomes really important to understand that being triggered does not mean being in danger: you can be triggered when there’s no danger.

It helps to understand that your survival reflex sometimes acts like a kid pulling the fire alarm at school when there’s no fire, but because he doesn’t want to write the math test.

Use this knowledge: when you’re triggered, remind yourself of where you are, and what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and it’s just your survival reflex going off, pulling the fire alarm at a faint reminder of danger. Reminding yourself of where you are and that you’re safe is a way of grounding yourself – and knowing how to ground yourself is an important coping skill.


I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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