When faced with a potential threat, whether physical, psychological, or emotional, our brain is wired to react.
Because the deepest part of our brain, the amygdala (a.k.a., lizard brain)serves as a protector. Its sole purpose is to scan our environment for negative stimuli, or threats, to warn us to take action.
These reactions can be helpful, if and when the threat is immediate and real. But too often, especially in our modern world, we perceive situations as threatening when they aren’t. The amygdala has no ability to discriminate between real, immediate threats, and perceived threats.
For example, there’s a big difference between leaping out of the way of a speeding car in the street, and being terrified to cross the street forever. An overly active fear response leads to anxiety, and all the negative effects anxiety brings.
When the amygdala senses a threat (real or perceived), it races signals to your hypothalamus, which in turn sends them to your autonomic nervous system (ANS).
The ANS then triggers you to react in one or more of four ways, depending on which of the ANS systems are dominant in, at that moment.
The sympathetic nervous system will trigger you to either fight the threat or flee from it.
The parasympathetic nervous system, if it is dominant, will trigger either a freeze or fawn reaction.
Let’s look at each of the four reactions to see what’s happening in the body and mind when they are triggered. It helps to understand how they feel in the body, because when they are triggered, there’s little we can do to stop them, other than bring awareness to the experience.
The fight reaction usually manifests itself via a common emotion: anger. Underlying all anger is fear, because anger allows us to act against the threat, to defeat it. It is a mobilizing fear in the direction of the threat.
The amygdala, when faced with a threat it believes we cannot defeat, will sometimes trigger us to run away from the situation: the flight reaction.
The physical symptoms of Fight and Flight
Both fight and flight feel similar in the body.
You may experience an increase in your breathing and heart rate, and pale or flushed skin. Your hands and feet may become cold as the blood retreats to the major organs to enable you to fight or run. Your muscles tense up.
Your pupils may dilate so you can take in more light. Your hearing may sharpen as well. Your ability to feel pain may be hampered.
There are times when faced with a threat, we simply freeze in place, or hide.
Why do we do this? Because in some situations it pays to be quiet and still, to let the threat slip past without seeing us.
If you’re walking through the jungle and see a tiger, freezing might be the best option. Tigers are fast and very strong. It is unlikely you’d survive a fight or flight from a tiger. But you might go unnoticed if you froze in place behind a tree or bush.
In some situations, freezing might give us time to choose the best course of action.
The physical symptoms of Freeze
Your heart rate might fall. You will probably find it difficult to move. Some people find it hard to speak. Your hands and feet may be cold, and your breathing restricted. You may feel muscle tension. Your hearing may become sharper.
Psychologists have identified a fourth fear reaction: fawning.
If in the past, the first three reactions failed to protect us from a real threat, we may resort to a fourth option: fawning.
To fawn is to appease the threatening party, in order to lessen the blow or the attack.
We may agree with our attacker, play nice, do things to calm them down, or to give in to their demands, in order to protect ourselves from the full brunt of their attack, be that physical, verbal, or psychological. Fawning is at the root of the phenomenon known as People Pleasing.
Fawning is often the result of past trauma. It is common in people who suffer from PTSD due to mental, physical, and sexual abuse or assault. This is especially true in childhood, when fighting, running, or freezing in place were not viable options. It is also common among abused partners, who often feel they cannot escape for financial or emotional reasons.
The physical and psychological symptoms of Fawning
Fawning can trigger many of the same physical symptoms of the other three reactions. \One might also feel acute anxiety and fear, along with sadness, anger, and shock. They may experience denial and disbelief, or numbness and emptiness. They might have trouble sleeping and suffer from nightmares.
Frequent headaches, body pains, or gastro-intestinal problems are common. As a result, they may lose appetite and experience low energy. Their mental and physical health can suffer, and they often find themselves relying on substances: alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.
It is nearly impossible to control our natural, fearful reactions to real or perceived threats, but there are things you can do to regain control of your body and mind.
It’s always helpful to bring awareness to our emotions.
As soon as you feel a fear reaction coming on, countdown from five: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… This helps to interrupt the reaction so you can respond, instead.
Then say to yourself, “This is just a reaction to a fear. Is this a real threat? Or do I simply think it is?”
This simple realization is the key to deflating fear reactions and learning to respond to them. It will be difficult to do, at first, but with practice it really does help.
If you determine that it is a real, immediate threat, try to find a safe place, if you can. If not, reach out for help to a friend, family member, or your doctor or therapist. If you are being attacked, call out to anyone nearby. If you can, point at them and say, “Please help me!”
Once you’re in a safe place, take deep, slow breaths and exhale slowly. This will slow down your heart rate and help you get a handle on your fear and anxiety.
In situations where you know the threat isn’t immediate, shift your fear to excitement.
The physiological experiences of fear are nearly identical to those of excitement. The only difference is the ‘label’ or frame we put on those reactions: “I’m afraid,” or “I’m excited.”
Instead of saying, “I’m afraid to confront my boss about a raise,” reframe it, “I’m so excited to talk with them about my value to the company!”
Physical activity is good for us in so many ways, even when dealing with fear.
If you find these strategies difficult to implement, or you are still struggling with fear or anxiety, you should reach out to your doctor or therapist.
If you live in the RDU/Wake County area, reach out to our counselors at RDU Counseling for Change.
We specialize in individual, couples, and family therapy, and have in person and Telehealth options.
Contact us today and get on the road to better mental health!
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