Understanding the Stress Response (Fight, Flight, Freeze – part 1) – Step 1 (slide set 3)

**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. Any uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

Author: Peter Miller

Anyone with BPD will eventually admit that undesirable life events tend to happen in a patterned/predictable way, and that these events most often include instances of being overly emotional/dramatic. The slides in this part of the presentation are here to help you understand some of the systems that are activated when you are having a “de-regulated” moment (when your emotions are “over activated”). It’s not necessary to know exactly how all this stuff works, but very good to know at least that something biological is happening when you aren’t functioning well.

Having this sort of “clinical awareness” about your brain, hormones, glands, nervous system, etc. allows you to recognize that you have organs and systems that CAN be better understood, regulated, and managed. The primary challenge, therefore, becomes learning HOW to regulate and manage your inner world. You now have the permission to shift your attention away from beating yourself up, and instead, start the much needed emotional healing and mastery process. Great news, right?!

Below is a flowchart depicting the chain reaction that happens in the brain when you feel threatened and experience a fight, flight, freeze response. It starts with your perceptions of events, and then instantly results in the activation of certain brain/nervous system parts and releases of hormones. As you can see, it is the same biological process that happens to people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Experiences of past trauma are in fact highly relevant to people who struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder…. abandonment trauma, rejection trauma, devaluation trauma, etc.

So every time a difficult moment happens in the life of someone with BPD, there is a good chance that the event is experienced in ways similar to past trauma (like re-experiencing parts of the old trauma over and over again). The problem with untreated BPD is that there is no awareness of what’s happening in the mind and body during these moments, no way to work through the struggle, and therefore, no way to live life without feeling threatened when it isn’t needed.

It is important to understand that people with BPD (having “PTSD moments”) quite often experience their mind as “scattered or racing”, with many random thoughts and assumptions about “hurtful things” they believe are happening or are going to happen. There is much irrationality to this kind of thinking, but nonetheless it is understandable if you look at it from the angle of trauma, a person’s history, and activation of the fight, flight, freeze response.

If you were randomly re-experiencing all the sensations of past trauma (feeling genuinely threatened) you would want to try and figure out different ways to stay safe and avoid this kind of emotional suffering as life continued on. You would be hyper-vigilant towards things you perceived as potentially threatening. You would use all your brain power to think about ways to stay safe… hence experiencing so many thoughts.

But trying to “stay safe” doing all this cognitive (thinking) work becomes a very heavy emotional task since our thoughts are inseparably connected to our emotions. Indeed, whenever we are engaged in a thought process, the immediate consequence will be an emotion (or set of emotions). So if you perceived many things and people in your environment as potentially threatening, or believed you knew how things were going to unfold, you would tend to experience a combination of fear, anxious anticipation, plus whatever other emotions came from all these thoughts.

A “vicious circle” happens… 1) you anticipate hurtful things happening in the future, 2) you perceive hurtful things happening in the present, 3) you interact with your environment as though these hurtful things are actually happening, and 4) you experience events as painfully as you expected while interacting with the world (rejections from others, devaluations/put downs from others, avoidance from others, etc). This “vicious circle” of anticipation, perception, and reaction may very well include both re-experiencing (and reacting to) old trauma and possibly creating new trauma, over and over again.

When there is little to no halting of the fight, flight, freeze system (as depicted above), it is no wonder that people with BPD can sometimes seem so extreme in their reactions… they really are suffering with a lot of repetitious physical/cognitive/emotional stress!

Understanding that you didn’t ask for things to be difficult in life is crucial to developing a willingness to continue moving forward with your learning. You aren’t “bad” because things have been difficult or dysfunctional at times, even though I completely understand how you could initially believe this to be true about yourself.

Sometimes people without BPD expect people who suffer with BPD to have skills that were never developed in childhood. These “outsiders” are misguided and probably know little-to-nothing about the brain or mental health. You have permission to ignore the mental health ignorance that these “outsiders” sometimes pass off as truth!

Many of us are literally born with enhanced emotional sensitivity in our brain, and therefore, also have increased vulnerability for developing conditions like BPD. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing to be “neurologically unique” like this (to feel things so intensely, so deeply, and so often) but it does require certain training/understanding in order to balance, to function, and to thrive in your body as it is, and in the world as it is. I often compare mastering BPD to learning how to surf a large ocean wave, and that for some of us, this ability MUST be developed because nature has required it of us.

If you have ever participated in sports that require learning balance, you may recall that it can be frustrating to learn but exhilarating to continue once mastered. Likewise, I believe learning how to master BPD is all about finding the right balance within yourself, and that when you start mastering certain skills, you can then enjoy the life experience much more. If you would like to read further about how this balance in sports analogy can apply to BPD, click here to see my skateboarding article!

The important thing is having a willingness and strong desire to continue learning how to live in YOUR BODY. Do you remember a time when you really wanted (I mean REALLY wanted) to learn something new? This is the kind of motivation that is needed to master BPD and live a different life. Dig deep. Find your motivation!