Susan ran out the front door and headed down the street, race-walked two blocks to the neighborhood park and crashed onto a bench. She forced herself to slow her breathing. Inhale—one—two—three—four. Exhale—one—two—three—four—five—six. Repeat. Again. And again. She pulled her long, blonde hair up off her neck, fished in her pocket for a pony-tail elastic. Took inventory—noticing her heart rate slowing, legs no longer primed to run. Shook out her hands, wrapped her arms around herself for a hug.
“You’re alright. No danger here. No cars coming out of nowhere. You’re alright.” Because there was no one around she said it out loud. The sound of her own voice helped to ground and settle her.
What was going on?
Susan had been triggered into panic by the music in a TV commercial. The same tune that had been playing on the car radio just before the accident that put her in a coma for three days and in rehab for two painful months.
This wasn’t the first time a sound, a sight, a thought, triggered her body into fight, flight or freeze mode. She hated freeze the most. It reminded her too much of waking up in the hospital unable to speak, barely able to move. At those times she felt like a deer in the headlights, unable to escape the inevitable collision.
Fortunately, as part of her recovery in the rehab unit, Susan had learned about the possibility of post-traumatic stress reactions. She knew what was going on and how to manage the panic. She knew that her first line of defense when panic hit was simply to breathe. Simple sure, but not always easy. It helped if she imagined the overwhelming feeling of danger as a wave breaking on the beach. It would come and it would go, and eventually subside. In addition she had earned how to use her internal dialogue to soothe herself.
Why was Susan’s reaction to danger signals so visceral? Because as is true for all of us, her brain was hardwired to prepare her body to protect her from impending danger.
If you are about to be attacked by a tiger, an enemy soldier, or an angry person intent on physical or verbal harm, it serves you well. You have the extra adrenalin to power you to fight back or flee the scene until the danger passes. Or like a backyard rabbit at the sight of a dog, you may freeze, totally unable to react because your brain signals stillness as your best defense, and at times it is.
Whether you experience a single incident of horrific trauma or repeated moments of distress over days, months, even years, fight, flight, or freeze becomes an automatic reaction easily triggered by external stimuli. The body really does keep the score.
The problem comes when the feeling of danger is real but there is no real danger, as in Susan’s case. Or like a combat vet who dives for cover when a car backfires. Or an adult who reacts to a partner’s legitimate anger as if to their abusive parent. In countless situations an unwarranted fight, flee, freeze reaction disrupts lives and harms relationships.
If you find yourself in a similar position, what can you do?
The first step is to recognize what is happening. Know that you are not going crazy or having a heart attack.
To have tools ready to use when the need arises, practice deep breathing and staying in the present moment when you are calm and centered.
Question the truth of negative thoughts and feelings and the underlying beliefs. Is it true? Is it always true? Is there another way to think about it? Banish worst case scenario thinking. Question the validity of your conviction that things will never be better/right/the way you want them to be. Use your self-talk to reassure yourself.
Look for resources beyond yourself such as
- Belief in a loving, caring, and powerful God
- Talk therapy
- Medication under physician supervision
- Yoga, Pilates and other body-based therapies
- Supportive family members and friends
Finally, be kind to your body. You can’t live without it. Heathy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of sleep build a strong foundation for the resilience and toughness necessary to thrive in an uncertain and often traumatic world.
Author Note: With appreciation to Bessel Vander Kolk, M. D. and his book The Body Keeps the Score, an excellent resource on recovery from trauma.
I am a North Carolina Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor with 20 years experience in the field and many more years of life experience. I entered the counseling profession in mid-life after putting in time as a stay-at-home mom, a freelance writer, a journalist, and a United States-based missionary. I love walking alongside those who are seeking to find themselves, heal a relationship, or recover from trauma. In my spare time, I enjoy reading, writing, and hanging out with my grandsons.