Where PTSD comes from, Part 2: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Emotional Symptoms

(Disclaimer: This topic can be a little heavy for some people, so to compensate, I’m going to step up the goofiness today. )

Hi!

So – you know what? It occurred to me that I’m trying to explain the fight/flight/freeze response using zebras and lions, and…

Zebras don’t usually fight lions.

So before we go any further, you need to know more about Dave the Zebra. He’s not your ordinary zebra.

Dave’s had it with the lion bullying his friends. (You all remember what happened to George?)

Dave’s been learning karate. He’s gotten pretty good. The next time that lion messes with any of his friends, Dave’s going to unleash some zebra fury.

When the lion comes along, Dave’s reflex takes over. He feels the adrenaline rush; he hears the theme music from Rocky playing in his head…

He feels fear. Fear is not a choice – it’s part of reflex. Fear is a signal of possible danger.

And then he feels… anger. Rage. Maybe even vicious, blind rage, like he’s never felt before.

(How are you doing? Remember – if this is uncomfortable, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that we’re talking about a zebra, a little horse in striped pajamas…)

Like fear, feeling rage in a potentially life-threatening situation is also reflex. Rage helps Dave summon every ounce of bad-ass that he’s got, and to focus on neutralizing the threat.

(Hey – if you’re a zebra pulling karate moves on a lion, every bit of help counts, right?)

And aside from that – he feels a whole lot of… nothing. Feeling numb is also part of reflex; you see, when an animal is in danger, it may be cold, tired, weak, hungry, or injured (or arguing with its wife). All of that stuff just gets in the way when you have to focus on survival. So, numbing everything out is important to survival – it helps you focus on the danger and nothing else.

The last emotion involved in the survival reflex results from adrenaline. Adrenaline is basically a drug that the body produces itself. It’s a painkiller, so it allows Dave to keep beating up on the lion, even if Dave is exhausted or injured himself. To help do that, adrenaline makes you feel a little loopy/drunk/happy. This is part of how the body protects itself from stuff like pain or fatigue getting in the way of survival.

Later, Dave might feel ashamed and even horrified that he felt pleasure at beating the crap out of the lion. That’s why it’s really important for him to know that these feelings are a hard-wired part of reflex; they are not a choice, and he is not to blame for how he felt at the time. Shame and guilt don’t help him heal – they just feed depression and keep him stuck.

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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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Where PTSD comes from, Part 1: Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, Physical Symptoms

We’ve spent a couple of months talking about how your survival reflex works. Well, today we’re going to talk about what it actually does.

The fight/flight/freeze response is a basic survival reflex that is built into every animal. The part of your brain that powers is is called the amygdala (uh-MIG-duh-luh. ) It’s a very primitive brain part, and we’re not consciously aware of what it does (ie., reflex is not a choice). Look at your thumbnail – that’s roughly the size of your amygdala.

When the amygdala spots what it thinks is a sign of danger, it goes into survival mode, and activates your fight/flight/freeze response.

Think of our friend that we talked about earlier – Dave the Zebra.

Although I’m sure this might seem goofy to some of you, I want you to use him as a grounding skill: anytime the discussion starts to hit too close to home, just remind yourself – we’re talking about zebras.

ZEBRAS.

Cute little horsies dressed in black-and-white striped pajamas…

So – Dave the zebra and his buddies are out enjoying some pasture. Suddenly, Dave spots that lion hiding behind the big rock.

Dave’s amygdala goes into gear. His adrenal glands kick in, so he feels an adrenaline rush. His breathing gets faster and his heart rate speeds up. His large muscle groups tense up: the idea here is to get as much muscle strength as possible, to give Dave the best chances of survival.

When blood flow is focused on feeding your big muscle groups so you can run or fight, your extremities are not a priority. That’s why your hands and feet might get cold and clammy: they’re not getting a lot of blood flow.

You sweat because sweating is the body’s way of cooling off. Survival reflex expects you to have to run or fight, which heats the body up. So, reflex thinks that breaking out in a cold sweat is a nice, helpful little detail.

Since the survival reflex directs all available energy towards survival, it shuts down functions that are not essential to dealing with the immediate threat. So, your survival reflex will suppress your digestive system and your immune system, because these seem like a waste of energy when your survival is being threatened.

That, in a nutshell, are the main physical symptoms of the survival reflex. When you have PTSD, these symptoms can become chronic: that’s how you end up with chronic muscle pain, (and jaw pain from clenching your teeth); as well as chronic indigestion in some cases.

Next up – the emotional impact of the fight/flight/freeze response.

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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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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.

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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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PTSD Triggers: Coping with Thunderstorms

Hi there!

How’s everyone doing? Didya make it through the fireworks okay?

Now that the fireworks are over, a lot of people’s first instinct is to forget about it until next year. If you have a really tough time with fireworks, I can certainly respect that…

But – before you do that, please take a few minutes, and make a mental summary of what strategies worked for you this year and what didn’t. Then, use that information to plan what you’ll do the same way next time, and what you might try differently. Learning to live with this beast called PTSD is sometimes a process of trial and error, and you can get better at managing it by adapting your strategy to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t.

And while we’re on the topic of coping with sudden loud noises that make you jump, let’s discuss thunderstorms. Chances are, thunderstorms are no longer your favourite thing. Particularly the kinds where a giant clap of thunder right outside your window makes you end up under the bed at 3 am.

Not fun.

Okay – here’s what we’re going to do about it:

– Make a habit of reading the weather forecast. If you know a thunderstorm is coming, then it can’t catch you by surprise. If the weather forecast calls for overnight thunderstorms, your plan is to go to bed reminding yourself, “I’m home. I’m safe. They’re calling for thunderstorms – so I may wake up to the sound of thunder, but I’m not in danger”. Having this little conversation with yourself won’t stop you from reacting, but it will make it easier to re-orient yourself more quickly.

– Invest in a nightlight. Get a couple of pictures of a favourite place, somewhere you go to relax. Put the pictures somewhere you’re likely to see them when you first wake up, like your nightstand. If they’re calling for thunderstorms, turn on the nightlight before you go to bed. Being able to see around the room quickly when you wake up, and seeing an image of a familiar and relaxing place, will help you to orient yourself quickly to the fact that you are home and you are safe.

– Shut the window. I know – it’s nice to sleep with some fresh air. But shutting the window will help you block out some of the noise. If you miss having a breeze in your room, get a fan – as an added bonus, the sound of the fan can help to muffle the noise of the thunderstorm.

These ideas will help you re-orient and calm yourself if you react to the sound of thunder.  However – these tips are not enough to help you stop reacting to the sound of thunder. The best way to do that is a strategy called prolonged exposure.

Disclaimer: If you’re getting treatment, I’d like you to talk to your therapist and get them to help you with this. If you’re not in treatment, and you’re really struggling, I’d like you to get some help from an actual therapist, aside from just reading this blog.

If you’re mostly doing okay, but thunderstorms get to you, then this might be an exercise you can try on your own.

– sit comfortably; stretch; relax.

– set the volume on your computer to where you can barely, barely hear it.

– cue up a clip of thunderstorms on YouTube. Here’s one that I use.

– remind yourself that you are home and you are safe, and this is a sound clip on the computer. Keep doing this through the next step.

– hit play. Keep reminding yourself that you’re safe and this is a clip playing from your computer.

(If it terrifies you, and a minute into listening to the clip at the lowest volume you are still not feeling any calmer, STOP. Get a professional to help you with this.)

– if it’s only mildly unpleasant, keep doing this until it feels boring and pointless, and you’re not reacting to it. The next day, turn up the volume slightly, and repeat again until you are no longer reacting. If you keep doing this, slowly and gently, you will retrain your fear reflex that the sound of a thunderstorm is not dangerous.

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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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