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Fight, flight or freeze.

Stress — admin @ 12:48 pm

Here at Counselling Connections we love the opportunity to take a coffee break and have a few minutes to chat and check with each other how things are going. Today there was only one topic of conversation because this morning’s was the coffee break that nearly never happened. This is because the trip up the street for takeaway coffee nearly ended badly when our intrepid volunteer distractedly stepped off the pavement onto the road without first checking to see if there was any traffic coming. And there was. A large cement truck was trundling along and gave a loud blast of its deep and ominous horn. Well, our coffee volunteer displayed nimbleness and slight of foot not seen in years and hastily jumped to safety.
This fright and its after effects were the subject of the coffee break chat when he got safely back to the office with the coffees. We got to talking about those well known responses to stress; the fight or flight response. Fight or flight is a natural response to an environmental treat. Our bodies are adapted to give us every chance of escape when faced with danger. We evolved to respond to threats which initially were real dangers in our environment and which nowadays with modern lifestyles can be more subtle and psychological. Whereas a stress response in the body leaves us with a good chance of escaping a danger which we can outrun or face down it is not always helpful with the more modern threats which we experience.
The fight or flight response is a natural physiological reaction. It places our bodies in a state of hyperarousal with changes in the heart, lungs, stomach and muscles. It influences the bladder and bowels as well as hearing and sight. Modern studies of this response have added a third choice also, which is to freeze. The freeze response is something which we can all observe in nature documentaries when an animal facing a threat either hides or plays dead in the hope of escaping the danger. In the freeze response a bleat or attempt to call out to mother would give away the animal’s hiding place so a loss of voice is part of the body’s reaction. This is true too in the case of humans caught in a freeze response to danger and can cause distress afterwards when someone recalling the event struggles with why they didn’t call out or scream. Unfortunately the silence is part of the natural response in the hope that we won’t provoke the aggressor and risk making the situation worse.
This also brings up the aspect of recall. There are a couple of points to say about this. Firstly our experience of our senses, our perception, plays like a cinema screen in our heads and our reactions are to these perceptions. When we try to recall an event our memory plays in the same way like a cinema in our head. We are capable of having a similar physiological reaction to a memory of an event as to the original event itself. That is why we are very careful with recalling an event in therapy. It is important to take things slowly and concentrate on the safely of the therapeutic environment.
Our bodies can react with the stress response to a phone call, to a demand from a boss or a loved one or to a traffic jam. We may feel an inclination to get angry or aggressive. More subtle modern stressors can be financial worry, relationships and loss or bereavement. A threat to our job security or a pending move whether that is a career move or moving house can be stresses that can create a build up in our bodies. There are ways to learn how to manage and control these stressors. One of the ways an animal discharges a stress build up is by shaking and we sometimes experience shaking after a sudden shock. Getting some exercise like for example a brisk walk can also bring about the discharge of a build up of stress.
Sometimes people live with high levels of stress because of ever present dangers in their environment. This can be because of an unsafe family situation and may continue for years. This constant or chronic stress can leave a person in a prolonged state of hyperarousal which can then be difficult to turn off after they have moved on to a safer place. Time and understanding and working with your body are techniques which can help towards reducing these over time.
So, we see lots of different kinds of stress presenting in our bodies. There are many different causes some sudden and dramatic, some less so and some prolonged over time. There are different techniques to successfully manage and control these responses in our bodies. They are natural reactions designed to help us and by getting an understanding of them and learning to control them we can learn to cope well with the different situations and challenges that we face in life.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk.

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