The human stress/fear response evolved millions of years ago in our ancestors to allow them to survive – it is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. If we saw a tiger, it was necessary to feel fear as this fear motivated us to freeze and then to run away when it was safe to do so. Modern-day humans have inherited this mechanism.
One of the areas of the brain that becomes highly active when we experience fear and gives rise to the fight/flight response is called the AMYGDALA. This area of the brain is also stimulated in other animals, such as gazelles when they perceive danger.
.Let’s imagine that a herd of gazelles is calmly grazing when they become aware that a tiger is preparing to launch a ferocious and potentially lethal attack. What is their response?
Well, what happens on a physiological level is that the sighting of the tiger instantaneously triggers intense activity in their brains’ amygdala and their ‘fight/flight’ response is triggered. This causes them to experience feelings of panic and terror which in turn leads them to flee the tiger as fast as they are able which, given they are gazelles. is very fast indeed.
Once the danger has passed, however, the activity in their amygdala quickly returns to normal and, therefore, they are able to return to calmly grazing.
The gazelle, then, is easily able to ‘switch on’ their amygdala but, just as easily, ‘switch it off’ again when its activity is no longer required.
Sadly, we poor humans are not nearly as good at doing this. Because we have language, which allows us to carry out internal monologues, we also have imagination and are able to dwell on the past and contemplate the future; because of this, we are able to constantly torment ourselves with worries, regrets, concerns, fears and so on. In this way, especially if we suffer from anxiety, we can find ourselves constantly feeling we are trapped in the ‘fight or flight’ response – our amygdala become permanently over-stimulated, even though we do not wish it to be and it is not in our survival interests that they are; indeed, being is such a state of permanent anxiety and fear imperils our survival (e.g we might smoke and drink more, or, in extreme circumstances, attempt suicide).
Vital Importance Of Understanding The Role Of The Body In Trauma Therapy:
We have seen how the experience of significant and protracted childhood trauma increases our risk of developing both serious psychological and physical problems as adults.
Probably the best-known expert working in the field of understanding how the body and our experience of the crippling effects of severe trauma are inextricably linked is former Harvard Professor, Bessel van der Kolk.
Bessel van der Kolk stresses the crucial importance of treating the effects of severe trauma in a HOLISTIC manner; in other words, therapeutic approaches for trauma need to not only focus on the physical brain (e.g. by treating the individual with psychoactive medications) and the mind (e.g. by providing cognitive therapy), but also by providing therapy for the BODY (i.e. somatic interventions).
Bessel van der Kolk, who has devoted the majority of his adult life to the study of the effects of trauma and ways of treating it, contends that what lies at the heart of trauma-related conditions (e.g. PTSD and complex PTSD) is a THWARTED ‘FIGHT OR FLIGHT’ RESPONSE.
What Is Meant By A Thwarted ‘Fight Or Flight’ Response’?
When the fight/flight response is activated as a result of a threat, a massive surge of extra energy is stimulated in the body. However, when this response is thwarted, and, therefore, is unable to run its course, and is left incomplete, the extra energy that has been generated is not ‘burned off’ and remains ‘trapped’ in the nervous system.
Therefore, although the threat has passed, the extra energy that remains locked in the nervous system, in latent form, even though no real threat continues to exist.
What Is The Effect Upon The Person Of This ‘Thwarted Fight/Flight’ Response And Of The Resultant, Trapped, Excess Energy?
There are two possible responses :
- HYPERVIGILANCE / EXTREME REACTIVITY / HYPERAROUSAL
- DISSOCIATION / CHRONIC FREEZE RESPONSE
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
HYPERVIGILANCE / EXTREME REACTIVITY / HYPERAROUSAL :
This trapped, excess energy can make the nervous system highly volatile and reactive, as well as cause the individual to experience chronic feelings of intense anxiety, hypervigilance, and a sense of mental and physical pressure to discharge it in response to the slightest of provocations.
S/he, therefore, may become prone to over-react, greatly, to perceived threats (even though, objectively speaking, these so-called ‘threats’ pose no danger and would not alarm, or create much anxiety in, an ‘ordinary’ person), such as by becoming extremely angry/aggressive or intensely afraid (causing ‘flight’ type behaviour).
In other words, the trapped energy is liable to ‘leak out’ at the smallest opportunity, triggering inappropriate, maladaptive and dysfunctional behaviours.
DISSOCIATION / CHRONIC FREEZE RESPONSE :
However, if the individual cannot dispel the trapped energy effectively through ‘fight/flight responses (e.g. such a situation may be true of an abused child who lives in a household in which s/he is helpless and can neither ‘fight back’ nor run away and escape the threatening environment), s/he may enter a dissociative/chronic freeze state.
WHAT KIND OF THERAPIES MAY EFFECTIVELY HELP TO ADDRESS THESE PHYSIOLOGICALLY-BASED PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH TRAUMA?
A traumatized individual may cycle between periods of hypervigilance and dissociation (as described above) and may seek to ameliorate his/her condition, and to gain a sense of temporary release, by indulging in dangerous and risky activities (e.g. reckless driving), thus stimulating adrenaline and cortisol production and ‘burning off’ some of the trapped energy or by attempting to blot out his/her pain through the use of alcohol and/or drugs. This, of course, is not a good, long-term strategy.
Bessel van der Kolk asserts that it is imperative that the traumatized individual escapes such a cycle by being helped to live more fully in the present and in the ‘here and now’ and to understand, on a deep level, that the danger which traumatized him/her is now over and that s/he is now safe.
Unfortunately, whilst the body fails to release its trapped energy, keeping the person highly susceptible to his/her far too easily triggered, fight/flight, trauma-related responses (i.e. hypervigilance and dissociation), this is not possible, Bessel van der Kolk contends.
In connection with his theories, Bessel van der Kolk emphasizes the importance of treating the effects of trauma holistically (i.e. treating the mind, brain and body – see above). Therapies he recommends include :
- breathing exercises
- eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
EXCESSIVE AND CHRONIC TENSION IN THE PSOAS (‘Fight or Flight’) MUSCLE :
The main location in the body where muscular tension accumulates is called the PSOAS muscle (sometimes also referred to as the ‘fight or flight‘ muscle; it connects the lumbar spine to the legs).
It is sometimes called the fight/flight muscle because when we feel threatened, anxious or fearful, or in response to a significant loss, it becomes energized in preparation to assist us with the actions of running away or fighting.
And, if, during childhood, we have frequently been in the fight/flight state this muscle may have become perpetually tensed up to the extent we have habituated to this feeling of tension to such a degree that we no longer register it as abnormal; notwithstanding this, it is an indication that we are still being adversely affected by painful emotions linked to our traumatic childhood (if only on an unconscious level).
TRAUMA RELEASE EXERCISES (TRE) :
Neurogenic Tremors: Why Shaking With Fear Is Good For Us
One very important finding in relation to this is that traumatic experiences can lead to chronic excess tension in the skeletal muscles. And, because the body and the mind are so intimately connected, this, in turn, can make us hypersensitive to stress to such a degree that we may find even very minor stressors create in us feelings of overwhelming anxiety.
Indeed, as the role of the body in how traumatic experiences affect us (especially if we are suffering from PTSD) becomes better understood there is a concomitant increase in interest in supplementing psychological therapies to treat responses to trauma with somatic (physical) therapies.
Tremors are a natural, automatic/instinctual response to anxiety, fear, panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or any shock to the nervous system. This response has evolved because, when the nervous system becomes out of balance, it helps to return the body and emotions back into a state of equilibrium; it achieves this by reducing our level of arousal and shutting down the ‘fight or flight ‘response.
Furthermore, tremors are a way of dissipating the excess energy residing in the body that accumulated during the state of high arousal. In this way, tremors can help us escape from the unpleasant symptoms (both physical and mental) that may have arisen due to trauma.
In technical terms, tremors help to reduce over-activity in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis ( a complex neuroendocrine system whose functions include regulating our response to stress, our emotions and bodily, energy storage and release) and are called neurogenic tremors.
Applications To Therapy :
Tremors (or shaking or trembling) help to deactivate and calm the nervous system. Such deactivation signals to the brain that danger and threat have passed; this, in turn, allows us to relax again: our muscles are able to release the excess of energy they have stored up whilst in fight/flight mode which, in turn, permits chronic tension patterns that have developed in the body to be eradicated.
People who have suffered trauma and have developed PTSD have often been ‘locked into’ the fight/flight response for a protracted period of time and have suppressed their feelings of anxiety (often with the ‘help’ of alcohol or drugs) because they believe, on a conscious or unconscious level, that showing and expressing one’s feelings ‘a sign of weakness.’
And, because of this erroneous belief, such individuals tend to be averse to physical displays of distress (such as trembling and crying). The price to be paid for such suppression is that the excess energy stored in the body becomes trapped, ensuring that the person habitually remains in an uncomfortable state of bodily tension and associated mental distress.
Based on the ideas presented above, Dr Peter Levine, a leading expert on the effects of trauma, has developed a therapy that he has called ‘somatic experiencing‘ which helps the client to release the pernicious, pent-up energy that was generated by their traumatic experience and, thus, alleviate their physical and mental suffering incurred.
Bercelli, PhD, devised six trauma release exercises designed to alleviate stored muscular tension. The idea is that the tension is released by a ‘muscular shaking process’ known as ‘neurogenic tremors’ and its purpose is to rid us of our deep-seated, chronic, early life trauma-related bodily tension.
The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process: Transcend Your Toughest Times. Namaste Publishing Inc. (2008) ISBN 1897238401
Levine, P.A. Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body. Sounds True (2005) ISBN 1591792479, 9781591792475
van der Kolk, Bessel (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin. p. 217. ISBN 9781101608302
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.