When you are in a threatening situation your body automatically goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is your survival instinct and it is hardwired in your biology. (You can read more about the symptoms of PTSD here and here, and why PTSD develops here). Lets breakdown the automatic physical reactions that happen in a traumatic event and explore their purpose:
- Blood pumped to big muscle groups and away from small muscles (pounding heart, increased blood pressure, hands/feet get cold and clammy) – this prepares your body to fight back or run away
- Fast, shallow breathing or hyperventilating – this fuels your body by taking in more oxygen
- Tense muscles – this prepares your body to fight (throw a punch) or run
- Dilated pupils – this allows you to take in more light and see your surroundings better
- Flushed skin and feeling hot and/or sweaty – your body is an engine that is overworking, this allows your body (your engine) to cool down and keep running on high alert
- Fear, anxiety, panic – these emotions are natural and are telling your brain to keep your body on high alert because there is danger
- Thinking part of brain shuts off (hard to think straight) – if you stop to think if its better to run away from the lion or climb or the tree or play dead, you wasted precious time and its probably too late. Thinking shuts down to allow your body to react quickly to keep you safe (most therapy for PTSD involves learning how to turn the thinking part of the brain back on).
- Tunnel vision (hard to focus on anything else) – ensures that you stay focused on the danger in front of you and eliminates distractions.
- Digestion shutting down (stomach problems and dry mouth) – when your body is in survival mode all resources go to fight, flight, or freeze. If you’re not going to be alive in a moment why waste precious energy digesting food? Your body automatically redirect those resources to fight, flight, or freeze. This is why many people with PTSD have stomach/indigestion problems.
- Immune System shutting down – Similarly your body is not going to waste precious resources fighting off a cold if you might not survive the immediate danger, so all energy goes into survival mode. This is why people with PTSD get sick more often and suffer from many chronic illnesses.
All of these physical reactions make perfect sense when you are in immediate danger and they help you survive! The problem is when this survival instinct (fight, flight, or freeze) is getting triggered all the time, and your body is in high alert all the time. It’s like constantly revving the engine in your car. It will wear down your body and lead to chronic fatigue, exhaustion, and chronic illnesses. Many effective treatments for PTSD aim to teach you how to rewire your body. Things like yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are all very effective ways of learning how to slow down that automatic physical response.