Cortisol, adrenalin and our primal fear responses.
Myra Seberry - Saturday, May 18, 2013
I'm touching on this subject today after a counsellor friend of mine was talking about how he gets paralysed with fear over the most simple of tasks. He knew it was in some way related to childhood when his father would scream and shout at him and he would be terrified into immobilisation. What he didn't know is that is one of our primary primal survival techniques.
Many people think that fight or flight are the two only survival strategies we have, but in fact there are a few more at our disposal that we use probably far more frequently. Here is a quick rundown on each and their benefits and how we misuse them and end up very unhealthy with cortisol resistance and adrenal fatigue.
Prehistorically if you were strong enough to fight and kill an animal that was attacking you, you would need a good dose aggression, physical strength and determination to kill your prey. Your body would supply you with enough adrenaline to put up the best fight of your life. Today there is not too much need for this in everyday life. Although, if imagine your child trapped beneath a car, your adrenal glands would dump a whole lot of adrenalin into your blood so you would have the strength to pick up that car (fighting for your child’s life).
Where we use the fight response inappropriately:
Screaming at our kids in frustration
Cyber angst on Facebook and other social media
Bullying in the school playground
Road rage situation
Prehistorically if you saw a sabre-toothed tiger coming for you your body would spike your cortisol and adrenaline so you ran the fastest race of your life. Today a good flight response would be if you saw a car suddenly coming toward you quick adrenaline and cortisol spikes will get you out of there quick.
Where we use the flight response inappropriately:
Avoiding confrontation in fear of the consequences
Anorexia or Over eating
Moving house a lot
Lots of short relationships
TV and computer addiction
Athletes that have to run, jump and fly to feel free
Hiding in art, drawing, writing, dancing and music
Prehistorically if it was dark and there was danger nearby you would get that spike of cortisol and the adrenalin would be your indication to do something but maybe you have a baby or you’re not physical strong enough to fight or run so you freeze completely so that your almost invisible and thus protecting yourself and your young as best you can.
Today were that comes into action is often in rape and night time attacks. Women in particular can have this response, becoming completely paralysed with fear. It is a natural response unfortunately it doesn't work in our modern world and we are faced wondering why we didn't fight when the simple truth is our primal instinct took in the circumstances and went with the prehistoric way or the way that worked as a child.
Where we use the freeze response inappropriately:
When you’re speaking in public, your mind freezes and you can’t find the words you need.
You’re stressed in a situation and again just find yourself immobilised with fear. This is common in car accidents and exams.
You find it difficult to make decisions when under pressure.
In reality disassociation is like a sub-response to flight and immobilise and generally seen in children or men of war.
Prehistorically if a child witnessed or was part of catastrophic disaster eg. Community attack, earth quake or animal attack. To free them self from the trauma they may completely forget the event ever happened or close their eyes and go in their imagination to a safer place.
In todays world we see this happen to children who have been abused physically and sexually. They can suffer from amnesia, dissociative disorders, multiple personality disorders. In the case of war the trauma inflicted on soldiers manifests as post traumatic stress.
Personally I witnessed this happen to my sister. When she was seven she kicked a nest of wasps that were hidden under a picnic table. She was immediately attacked by hundreds of wasps, as I was wiping them from her body there was so much adrenalin in my body I couldn't feel them stinging me. After the event she was covered in stings and in incredible pain. That evening as soon as the pain left her body she couldn't remember the attack at all. To this day she has no recollection of the event, yet remembers the rest of the events of that day!
Versions of this in everyday life manifest as:
Feeling like your not quite with it or vagueness
Speaking then not realising what you said or did.
Tend and befriend
This is almost the opposite to fight or flight and is seen mostly in women especially if they have children. It is also seen in men but not as often. Prehistorically it was safer for women with small children to be with others so that the collective could protect each other. You tended to the needs of your community and if there were threats to the community you as a group you were safer. If you were in a threatening situation or taken by another group the safest thing to do was befriend the enemy and cooperate and possibly integrate into that new environment.
Unlike flight, fight or freeze, cortisol spikes when you’re not feeling part of a tribe, community or family. The hormones at work when you’re feeling safe and in a loving community are oxytocin, oestrogen and endorphins.
Today this is seen positively in loving families, communities, support groups, friendship groups and in team sports. Trying to create the release of these hormones in a hostile environment is also a survival response to high adrenalin and cortisol.
Where we use the tend and befriend response inappropriately:
Being “trapped” in an unhealthy relationship
Becoming excessively giving to the detriment of yourself, be it with your time or your resources.
“Bitchiness” as a way to fit in.
Obsessions on how we look, are we sexy?
Having unclear boundaries within relationships.
Maintaining relationships out of guilt.
Even creating “sickness” or drama habits.
I think it is really important to clarify that almost all of these things can be an appropriate response to the stressors of life. It is important to give voice to injustices. Altruism is an extraordinary part of humanity. Expressing your self in art or movement is an amazing way to deal with issues. When it is inappropriate is when it becomes chronic and addictive and not focusing on creating solutions.
So the question to pose is what is your dominant survival strategy and are you aware of it?
Give yourself a bit of time to think back to when you were a child. What did you do when you were feeling threatened or stressed?
Did you hide out till it was safe?
Did you kick and scream till you felt heard or got your needs met?
Were you so small that there was no were to go so you pretended you were invisible, staying quiet and completely still till the threat stopped?
Or did you quickly learn to do favours and get on the right side of whoever was causing the threat?
When you learn these responses as a child what happens as an adult is every time you get a spike of cortisol you default to the survival strategy as a child not giving your body a chance to relax. Every little stressful event puts your body into survival mode shutting down, your growth hormones, sex hormones, impinging on your circulation, brain function etc...
Finding ways to stop that default, through meditation, hypnosis, movement and good nutrition will in turn give your body a chance to heal and rejuvenate in a balanced way.