‘Why Do I Do That?’ The Silent Sway of the Threat Response

Young adult in jeans and hoodie sits against station wall, hands covering face, knees up to chestHumans are complex creatures. We operate on many levels simultaneously, and not all of these levels are in our conscious awareness. Therein lies the potential for internal conflict, which can sometimes feel impossible to resolve. We may not even be clear on what is causing the internal conflict in the first place:

“Why do I get so angry?”

“Darn it, why can’t I sleep? I have to get up in four hours and I’m going to be exhausted!”

“Why can’t I stand up to her? I argue with her in my head all the time, yet when she’s actually there, I just can’t stick up for myself.”

“I know it’s dangerous to tailgate; why do I do it?”

“There I go, overreacting (or under-reacting) again!”

These internal battles are difficult to fight. They can create a profound lack of trust in ourselves. Exasperated, we might shrug and say “it’s just my personality” or “it’s genetic; my father was just like that.” These statements create an air of inevitability, as though we’re just going to have to learn to live with this aspect of ourselves. I’ve noticed “genetics” is a favorite fallback for when we don’t understand the threat response cycle, or the formerly adaptive learning that now contributes to our self-created troubles.

Of course, every person is unique. We all have cultural, familial, genetic, and individual components of our characters and behaviors, as well as unique histories. In this article, we are looking at a major portion of the equation that is often overlooked: the underlying psychophysiological (mind-body) “engine” that drives these responses. If the cortex (our “thinking brain”) is the road map, then the autonomic nervous system is the engine. (Might I note few cars go to the mechanic for GPS problems!)

According to Dr. Stephen Porges, the human nervous system essentially has the following “gears” available to it:

  • social engagement (includes interaction with others as well as being in peaceful, relaxed alone time)
  • fight, flight (experienced as anger/fear)
  • freeze

All of these gears are responses to the environment and are designed to help ensure our survival.

Unlike a car’s gears, these human “gears” aren’t mutually exclusive. We can be primarily in social engagement, but feel the beginnings of the fight response begin to stir within us. Or we may be mostly frozen and immobile, but feel anxiety (flight) creeping up.

If we are in a safe and generally supportive environment, the healthy, well-balanced nervous system is in social engagement most of the time. In other words, it’s not wasting precious life energy by revving up into anxiety or anger when there is nothing actually threatening at the moment.

If something does start to go wrong in the social environment, a well-balanced nervous system will go to that social engagement option first: it tries to solve problems via discussion or negotiation, not jumping right into fight or flight. It uses exactly as much fight/flight/freeze as the situation warrants, and no more. All four responses are freely available, and our automatic perception of safety/threat, called neuroception, makes a snap judgment about which one to go to.

However, our previous learning comes into play. Our system goes to what has worked in the past, and it avoids what hasn’t worked. So if you grew up with a very angry parent, when you encounter stress as an adult, you might:

  • freeze, and that’s the only response available; or
  • shift into too much anxiety or anger for the current situation

Your automatic, default response in any given situation depends on what your autonomic nervous system found most helpful in previous situations of high stress.

Implicit in this model is the fact the more we drop out of social engagement and into a threat response, the more our survival energy is running the show and the more our frontal cortex (reasoning, socialization) goes offline. This explains why, under stress, we can engage in behaviors we really disagree with later.

The freeze response is closely related to tonic immobility, a state in which the body becomes motionless (like a possum). It’s also related to dissociation (disconnecting from one or more aspects of our experience). When it becomes chronic, it is also closely related to depression.

Let’s take a moment to focus on the freeze response, which generally tends to be the least understood of all of our “gears.”

The freeze response is closely related to tonic immobility, a state in which the body becomes motionless (like a possum). It’s also related to dissociation (disconnecting from one or more aspects of our experience). When it becomes chronic, it is also closely related to depression. The freeze response comes up when the organism decides whatever is facing it is overwhelming, too much to cope with. Fight or flight won’t work. Therefore, it “decides” the best strategy is to hold still, be uninteresting, and see if the threat passes. Young children, who lack capacity for fighting or running away, are particularly prone to getting stuck in the freeze response.

In terms of self-regulation, the freeze response arises when the charge in the sympathetic nervous system climbs too high (fight/flight isn’t working!) and thus the parasympathetic activates at the same time, effectively buffering the high SNS charge. (For explanation of fight, flight, and freeze charges, please refer to my previous article.) People in freeze response look like they’re in a low-energy state, but it’s really a well-camouflaged high-energy state. It’s very costly to the body, especially when it sticks around longer than it needs to. And the nervous system can be slow to come out of this state.

None of these responses are a conscious choice. Many police officers, firefighters, and other first responders feel guilty when they freeze under stress, but it is neither their fault nor under their control. It’s been my consistent experience that these states can indeed be re-regulated, at least partially, so the autonomic nervous system adopts a healthier balance and more adaptive responses. This happens over time, with consistent work, and you have to be able to “speak reptile brain”—that is, know how to access and work with the unconscious part of the body-mind. I have generally not found it effective to work with these states via cognition alone, because cognition becomes unavailable under high-stress states. Somatically oriented psychotherapy, yoga, art therapy, and psychodrama are among the solutions many have found helpful when wrestling with the question of how to bridge the gaps within.

References:

  1. Arnsten, A.F., Raskind, M.A., Taylor, F.B., and Connor, D.F. (2014). The Effects of Stress Exposure on Prefrontal Cortex: Translating Basic Research into Successful Treatments for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, Vol. 1, January 2015, p. 89-99. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289514000101
  2. Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea L. Bell, LCSW, SEP, therapist in Long Beach, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Erin

    March 13th, 2017 at 7:17 AM

    I don’ t know if this is the same thing but I am a worrier as soon as I turn the lights off at night to go to bed. That is when the most pressing concerns start to creep out. I guess I can hold them back during the day because I am usually too busy to think about them. But nighttime hits and bam! there they are coming back to haunt me. I wish that I could do something about this machine that my mind becomes at night because it is seriously affecting my ability to get any real sleep! I go to be worrying and then I feel like I don’t sleep all night.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    March 13th, 2017 at 12:00 PM

    Hi Erin!
    Thank you for your comment. Obviously, I can’t give you any advice or recommendations, since I haven’t even met you! In general, though, what you’re describing sounds like a classic example of the threat response stuck on “ON”. It sounds as though your body/unconscious mind may be perceiving a threat (or threats), and trying to gear up to deal with the threats, at the wrong time–when it should be gearing down to go to sleep. Many people experience similar problems.
    I have found somatic therapy to often be very effective in getting people’s “engines” back on the right track: dealing more effectively with threats when they arise; and then being able to drop into the low energy state that’s necessary to go to sleep.

  • perry

    March 14th, 2017 at 7:32 AM

    I just finished reading a book where one of the main characters talks about how her parents were abusive when she was in the home and so now even as an adult when she sees the continuation of that relationship, even though she is years beyond her childhood she still reverts back to the actions that she took when she was small.

    This resonated with me because even though you may be years past the events that sparked this, there will be times when this is what you know, this is how you are used to acting and it all comes out whether you like it or not.

    That can be so complicated as an adult to know that you should in some way be beyond this but if you have never gone through the motions to actually have this sorted out, then of course you go back to your default setting. For her this was shame and avoidance.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    March 15th, 2017 at 1:58 PM

    Hi Perry,
    I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful comment. It resonates with me.

  • Jeremy McAllister

    Jeremy McAllister

    March 14th, 2017 at 11:40 PM

    Just wanted to say I’m appreciating your writings…

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    March 15th, 2017 at 1:57 PM

    HI Jeremy!
    Thank you so much–and likewise! At this moment I have two of your articles cued up in my browser!

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