WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

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boxers, sprinters, & ostriches

Not long ago, my middle child had a scare with a horse. (No worries, all parties remain healthy.)  Afterward, she was moody and fragile.  Her Grandmother sympathized a bit, then said, “Perk up.  You’re fine.”  Grandmom was right about my daughter’s externals, but internally something very different from her typical “fine” was happening.

In the presence of a threat or stressor, the amygdala – a.k.a. “the brain’s panic button” – triggers our primitive survival strategy.  Within 10 milliseconds, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream.  Epinephrine increases breathing and heart rate (hence the jitters); norepinephrine heightens focus.  The pituitary gland tells the adrenals to release cortisol, too, as escape fuel.  Meanwhile, the hippocampus records memories so we can identify and avoid future dangers. 

In non-humans, these processes activate when there is an actual threat – the mouse sees the housecat; the zebra smells the lion; the deer hears the bow snap.  Humans don’t have to face an actual threat.   We can work ourselves up into the survival mode frenzy with just our imagination.

You likely know this as “Fight or Flight.”  “Freeze” is the less-discussed third strategy.  Yep, some of us face threats head on; some of us run for cover; and some of us just stand, mouths agape.  There is some wiggle room in these reactions, but mostly we are who we are – boxers, sprinters or ostriches.

What constitutes your stressors and how intensely you respond relies on the interplay of your genetics and personal experiences.  You can massage that interplay, but what might be more helpful is to identify coping strategies for your unique stressors.

So, back to my middle daughter . . . . Physically, she was “fine.”  Physiologically, she needed time to settle.  Some months earlier my eldest and I talked about Fight, Flight or Freeze because of a stressor she experienced.  This wise eldest must have listened more closely than I thought.  She turned from her teary sister to her Grandmother and stated matter-of-factly “Just leave her alone.  Her amygdala’s wacked out and she’s a bit of an emu.”  Granted, her details were lacking, and her younger sister needed further consoling after being called a large fowl, but, basically, she got it.

References & Resources

Baumann, N., & Turpin, J.C. (2010).  Neurochemistry of stress.  An overview.  Neurochemistry Research, 35(12), 1875-1879.

 McGonigal, K.  (2015).  The upside of stress:  Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it.  New York, NY:  Avery.  (Link to purchase book below.)

Seltzer, L.F. (July, 8, 2015).  Trauma and the freeze response:  Good, bad, or both?  Psychology Today.  Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both