Many people are vaguely familiar with "fight-or-flight" response. More people are recognizing the "fight-flight-or-freeze" continuum which further expands on the involvement of the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) during a stress response. Broken down, the below figure illustrates how the body quite literally collapses to return itself back to a a stable state.
How the Body Responds to Stress
This process takes place in the amygdala region of the brain which acts as our internal alarm system. Once stimulated, the amygdala releases a cocktail of stress hormones and chemicals which signal various body systems to increase blood pressure, heart rate, breath count, and oxygenation; pupil dilation for visual focus (often described as "the red"); and blood perfusion to the musculature (often causing a tremble and flushed skin). This process primes us for action against physical or physiological threats, e.g. sudden car honking or right before a class presentation.
What we often fail to see is another valuable, survival instinct: the freeze response. Somewhat similar to "playing dead," this response can be just as automatic as fight-or-flight. Let's critique the above image now. Let's instead consider freeze as an alternative pathway to fight-or-flight instead of the end-result, such as the previously blogged Window of Tolerance illustration. In fact, what if people demonstrate a multitude of totally normal responses to stress?
The fight response is often seen as a hyperactive state in which the person's natural response to lean into the threat. People often associate fight with literal violence, but that might not ever result. "Fight" is our silly attempt to simplify a variety of responses with alliteration. What may actually happening in this category can include a range of arguing, silliness, loudness, or defiance to the threat. Think "moving toward" the object of threat.
If you recall from the above figure, flight is another SNS response in which the person's natural response consists of "moving away" from the threat. Again, our silly attempt to categorize based on alliteration reveals a flaw in the label. Flight-y behavior may present as leaving the situation physically, but it may also include daydreaming, disengaging, or avoiding.
There's more? Well, if you can move away or move toward something, you can additionally stand on the train tracks, too. Our body may naturally immobilize itself for protection. Quite literally, our body demonstrates "playing dead" in hopes that the threat will be the one to disengage or that the threat will be less painful. What may be particularly painful about surviving from a freeze response is the development of victim-blaming erroneously burdened on someone's inaction during the threat when in fact the person's body entered a natural state not by choice.
Why didn't I do something? Why didn't I fight?
Because your body underwent natural, stress response. It wasn't your fault.
Freezing can present as emotional numbing, flat affect, not listening or responding.
Not to be confused with deliberately performative "people-pleasing," fawning may appear as another form of submission to a threat response. In fact, it's not entirely a maladaptive response either. I've seen silly anecdotes about "convincing the tiger not to attack," and that's great, but it's far from a realistic scenario where I live. Consider, then, being bumped into by an extremely large bloke who immediately wheels around with reproach as though he rehearsed the entire orchestration. One may respond in a variety of ways, but I know one response I've often seen was, "man I'm sorry" from the person being menaced when it was entirely not their fault. Why? It's a form of posturing just as bringing up the hands in defense or meeting the challenge directly.
The danger in fawning is the level of personal exploitation that can occur during or after a threat. I often see this stress response mistreated or mis-labeled for either people-pleasing, codependence, or "the easy target."
This SNS response may also occur as a result of the sudden flux of hormones and physiological sensations. During the perceived threat, many emotions might occur simultaneously. Over-whelming emotions, in my experience, run tandem with any other response. During a stressful event, I often feel concern for my immediate and long-term safety, emboldened to take control of the situation, plan for the worst, cry, and feel exhausted all in the same hand. In short, it's too many emotions for a person to process at once.
Chronic stress certainly can lead to chronic fatigue. This fatigue is typically associated to adrenal fatigue which results. This adrenal fatigue occurs from overuse of the adrenal system. In short, our adrenal system is part of the same pathway which releases those stress hormones into the body. After a long-term
Important Take Away
No one response happens in a vacuum, and the above system is a clever play on alliteration designed to help simplify neuroscience, not to pigeon-hole someone's trauma or stress response. Many people experience a complex response precipitated by stress or triggers which requires individualistic strategies to widen comfort zones and reduce latency outside of the comfort zone.
When the stress response does manifest as a pathological concern, it's also helpful to realize that the neurological pathway of such conditions creates varied hyperactivity and hypoactivity regions of the brain, literally altering the physical form of the brain and altering the mind.
PTSD is more than a maladaptive fear response. In a meta-analysis of imaging studies, researchers found that only people with PTSD — and not those with anxiety disorders — have decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that restrains emotional responses. The results suggest PTSD is distinct from fear and anxiety disorders. Dr. Amit Etkin
In part of a Mental Illness
While there may be no cure for many mental illnesses, there is help. That helps comes in the form of treatment effective for the specific person, self-advocacy, and an understanding from our inner orbit of people as well as those we expect to regularly encounter. While there are certainly many strategies for self-regulation, the best help is assuring that the individual is safe in an environment that allows for self-regulation. Therapizing someone in this moment can be highly harmful and damaging from individuals who have no formal training in this area. Manipulating someone in this moment can likewise be highly harmful and damaging and should be treated as an disturbingly abusive threat to the person's safety.