Understanding the Stress Response (Fight, Flight, Freeze – part 2) – Step 1 (slide set 4)

**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

We all have brain parts associated with emotions. Whether or not any of us accept this as reality, these brain areas exist and can have problems. In BPD there are known to be at least four areas of the brain that are affected… two parts where the fear response gets initiated/activated (the amygdala and the hippocampus) but are OVERLY active, and two other areas that are designed to regulate our fear response (the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex) but are UNDER active.

All of this generally means that a person with BPD experiences more intense emotions (especially fear) while also having greater difficulty regulating the emotions and using them constructively for making wise decisions. Impulsive reactions are therefore much more common in BPD because that is how humans tend to respond whenever there is a perception of serious threat and it seems real.

Too much fear chemical, also known call CORTISOL is also constantly released into the body and contributes to being unnecessarily overwhelmed with emotions, as well as ongoing wear and tear on the brain and body. See this excellent article by Kevin Redmayne for more information in this regard. It is yet to be fully determined how much these brain differences are genetically inherited versus being altered by traumatic life experience, although genetics and unhelpful environmental experiences together most likely feed off of each other to make the problem worse.

Different people seem to have more of a “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze” reaction whenever the above-noted brain areas are “over-active” and “under-active”. Sometimes there is a unique combination of these reactions, such as “fight” (get angry) then “flight” (try to leave the situation). Either way, there is a good chance that the reaction is not a good fit for the situation, and likewise that the reaction will trigger unwanted life events (e.g., other people becoming confused, irritated, or rejecting). Sometimes there is a strong urge to “fight” or “flight” because of perceived threat, but no physical release (no action is taken) and so the cortisol levels just continue to build up in the blood.

Besides the many relational complications of the fight, flight, freeze system being constantly activated, the body is also not able to find its equilibrium (balance). The parts of the body that are designed to keep us safe from danger end up taking too much energy, while other important areas (e.g., immune system, digestive system) don’t get enough of what they need to do their jobs properly. The natural consequence of this lack of balance is being more susceptible than usual to all the many ways the body can develop both short-term and long-term illness/disease (e.g., colds, flu’s, cancers, auto-immune disease, etc.).

Our bodies “kindly” give off an array of symptoms to let us know that the fight, flight, freeze system is being activated more than it can handle. The last slide in this set depicts what many of these common symptoms can be. These are also the types of symptoms that get people showing up at the doctors office or hospital emergency department because the symptoms are so uncomfortable or the person may believe something else is going wrong with the body.

Before I realized I met criteria for BPD, I developed panic disorder and experienced many of these symptoms regularly. I still struggle with many of the typical anxiety (fight/flight/freeze) symptoms, more or less depending on life stresses, although my functioning level no longer seems to deteriorate as it did in the past when I had no idea what was going on or how to manage myself.

We can become very conditioned to being unbalanced, even desensitized, to the point of “just learning to live with” these common symptoms. Developing a very strong awareness/mindfulness of the body and emotions therefore becomes essential in order to maintain as much balance as possible. There are many ways to work on establishing better balance, and every person’s “toolbox” eventually becomes something completely unique to them, most likely involving a combination of old habits (even unhealthy coping) and new skills and habits for better managing thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.