Fight, Flight, or Freeze
The impact of trauma on a survivor’s brain
When it comes to the brain and trauma, we often automatically assume physical injury via some sort of sport related or vehicular accident. However, trauma to the brain can also be the result of a person, a place, or a situation. Specifically, it can be the result of abuse.
What exactly defines trauma? Trauma is a normal response to an abnormal situation out of our control.
Many of us have experienced trauma in one form or another, and all of us have a stress reaction to trauma. For survivors, trauma can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, assault, or even neglect, and it can invoke a “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
Most of us are familiar with the fight or flight concept, yet “freeze” is less well known. In fight or flight, the brain triggers the nervous system, signaling the senses to either adopt a defensive response, or to take “flight”. However, in many sexual assault situations, the brain’s reaction is to disassociate itself during flight mode, or “detach from reality,” often referred to as freezing. This is because the emotions are too overwhelming to deal with in the moment. Some describe this as mentally leaving your body while your body endures the trauma.
Continually experiencing traumatic events or reliving them through memories over time means the brain is constantly having a stress reaction, causing a buildup of the stress hormone, Cortisol. Cortisol in abundance activates the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for emotions, emotional behavior, and motivation. With continued trauma, Cortisol is triggering the amygdala, which is triggering emotions, which is triggering more Cortisol. This cycle in survivors can often cause extreme reactions varying from aggression to over-sensitivity to complete withdrawal or fear.
“It is a self-perpetuating cycle that leaves survivors with heightened sympathetic arousal (fight or flight or freeze response)” – Kimberley Shilson, Psychological Association
We know trauma can affect the brain in various ways, and the impact differs from individual to individual. Survivors may experience flashbacks, depression, numbness, nightmares, stress, feeling sick, shame or guilt, and have problems with social isolation, hypervigilance, or feeling overwhelmed all the time. Some even turn to alcohol and substance abuse in an attempt to block out the trauma and it’s impact.
For those on the outside looking in, it can be difficult to understand a survivor’s actions or reactions, which underlines the importance of understanding how trauma impacts the brain. Studies show that trauma actually rewires the brain, and the cumulative effects of trauma can put survivors in a constant state of overreaction or withdrawal, which can be hard for those around them to understand. Researchers are now referring to this as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
Healing from a traumatic experience takes time. Everyone heals at their own pace, and it is important to recognize when to seek professional help. For those in a survivor’s circle, it is equally important to educate oneself about trauma, to better understand how to support the survivor through their healing.
Turning Points Network has been helping survivors of trauma for over forty years. If you or someone you know has survived a traumatic experience, and is still struggling at work or at home, or continues to suffer fear, anxiety, depression, or any of the symptoms discussed, TPN has a 24-hour crisis and support line, and the staff are committed to helping survivors find their way again while maintaining a healthy and safe life.
OUR TURN is a public service series by Turning Points Network (TPN) serving all of Sullivan County with offices in Claremont and Newport. We provide wraparound supports for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, stalking and human trafficking and we present violence-prevention education programs in our schools. For more than 40 years, TPN has helped people of all ages move from the darkness of abuse toward the light of respect, healing and hope.