Flight, Fight, or Freeze?


Have you experienced a time of intense stress where you found your heart racing, your palms sweating, your hands shaking, or your adrenaline pumping? Or possibly, completely freezing and not being able to move or speak at all?

These reactions are how our nervous system can respond to stressful stimuli. This response can be helpful if we are running from a bear, fighting a tiger for our next meal, or “playing dead” to outwit a predator. The aforementioned examples are of how the nervous system protects us (and animals) in extreme times of danger and survival.

In modern life, stressors arise that still trigger this system—examples include performing in sports, taking an exam, meeting a deadline at work, getting into an argument, or experiencing verbal/physical/sexual trauma.

Our nervous system interprets the information that is happening around us and informs our bodies, our words, and our actions. Below are examples of how the system might respond:

Fight or Flight. (Sympathetic Nervous System)

  • Feeling physically strong or in an alert state
  • Not noticing pain
  • Acting on impulse
  • Running away from a situation

Freeze. (Parasympathetic Nervous System – dorsal vagal branch)

  • Going completely blank, not being able to think
  • Inability to feel or move your body
  • Feeling helpless or dissociated
  • Unable to make a decision

If these systems are chronically triggered over time, then the physical and emotional self can be negatively impacted. Having a chronically triggered, or “up-regulated” nervous system can look like the following:

  • Chronic pain
  • Jaw muscle clenching and pain
  • Pelvic muscle clenching and pain
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Muscle stiffness, soreness, and tightness
  • Slow bowels and constipation
  • Feelings of anxiety, depression, and being overwhelmed
  • GI upset

The good news is that we can “re-wire” our nervous system to help get out of a chronic, up-regulated cycle. The parasympathetic nervous system (ventral vagal system) is the part of our system that promotes “resting and digesting,” which helps our overall feelings of well-being and calm. This part of the system decreases the heart rate, decreases breath rate, stimulates digestion and sexual arousal, and enhances sleep.

The following strategies are ways to “re-wire” the system and enhance the parasympathetic nervous system response:

  • Meditation/mindfulness
  • Breathing exercises
  • Mild to moderate physical exercise
  • Massage therapy, myofascial release, trigger point release
  • Acupuncture
  • Talk therapy
  • Some types of yoga
  • Humming/singing
  • Spending time in nature
  • Spending time with loved ones and animals

If you are suffering from chronic pain, deal with excessively tight, painful muscles, or need some guidance on therapeutic exercises, Rebalance Physical Therapy can help! Physical therapy can help manage your symptoms of pain and body imbalances to promote greater holistic wellbeing and relaxation. Contact us today!

Written by Andrea Barberio, PT, DPT

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