Abuse & the body response (Fight or Flight)


Abuse is a traumatic experience when someone causes an individual or child harm or distress. There are 4 types of abuse, physical, verbal, sexual and emotional/psychological. Trauma is any disturbing experience that results in significant fear, helplessness, dissociation, confusion or other disruptive feelings that are intense enough to have a long-lasting negative effect on a person’s attitude, behavior and functioning. During abusive and traumatic experiences, the body is under extreme stress to try to cope with what is happening, this means the body does anything it can to help us and protect us.

But what really happens inside us? Exposure to a traumatic event or series of chronic traumatic events (e.g., child abuse) activates the body’s biological involuntary stress response systems. This stress response is an internal alarm called Fight or Flight; every human has these as they are our natural survival mechanisms. Fight is to face something head on, to confront it and flight is to fee or escape it. Imagine when we were living out in the wild centuries ago, this internal alarm system automatically helped keep us alive. If we saw a threat such as a bear or another person trying to harm us, this alarm would initiate us to either fight the threat or escape from it to ensure our survival.

Our normal stress response is activated by the Sympathetic Nervous system (Action and Stress) and our stress is diminished by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (Calm and Relax). The sympathetic is dominant in exertion, exercise, athletics, emotional and sexual arousal, as well as in stressful situations. The parasympathetic takes over in relaxation, sleep, meditation, massage, gentle touch, connecting deeply with another person and nurturing—both the nurturer and the nurtured.

So, if someone came towards you to harm you now, your fight or flight system would become activated.

During fight our Sympathetic Nervous system responsible for Action and Stress becomes activated with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol being released, sending a message to our body that we are ready for action or ready to move towards the threat. We experience an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, pupil size, rapid breathing, nausea, alertness, clenching of teeth and tightened jaw. We feel emotions of rage, anger, frustration, irritation, and forms of aggression

During Flight, again our Sympathetic Nervous system releases hormones like cortisol that activate our body to flee or move away from a threat. We experience an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen circulation, muscle tension, sweating which helps keep our body cool, shallow/constricted breathing, restless movements, fidgeting and constriction of blood vessels to reduce chances of blood clots. We also have a decrease in salvation, digestion and focus too. We may feel emotions such as panic, fear, anxiety, worry, tension, avoidance, feelings of being trapped and restless.

However, trauma and abuse especially during childhood can alter our alarm system. Responses can vary, some may have fight or flight for prolonged periods, others may have ‘Fawn’ but the most common response children of abuse develop is called the ‘Freeze’ response. This becomes the norm for the individual, so it is activated unconsciously in one twentieth of a second!

Consider a situation in which someone is trying to harm you, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself because you have neither the hormone-assisted adrenaline strength to respond aggressively to the hostile force nor the anxiety-driven cortisol for speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: Neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you. Under such unnerving circumstances, “freezing up” or “numbing out”—dissociating from the present—is about the only and (in various instances) the best thing you can do. Being physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilized by your anxiety permits you not to feel the distressing enormity of what’s happening to you, this is our body’s way of protecting you too. In such instances, some of the chemicals you thereby secrete (i.e., endorphins) function as an anesthetic, so the pain of injury (to your body or psyche) is experienced with far less intensity.

If you were unable to relate to such a circumstance, consider this. Consider you are a child, who is unable to fight an aggressor who might be bigger and stronger than them. They are unable to flee from an aggressor because they are not fast enough nor have a place to run or flee to. In such circumstances, freezing is usually the only option the body can identify as helpful so the child begins the fight or flight cycle but is unable to go through it and deviates to a freeze response instead. With prolonged exposure to harm, this freeze response becomes activated over and over again, becoming the body’s natural response to any stress and survival.

For a small child, the developmental capacity to protect oneself is limited. So, rationally or not, he or she are likely to experience a whole host of situations as threatening to survival in an abusive environment. Merely a look of rejection or scorn in the eyes of a disapproving parent, for instance, can make them feel uncared for, unloved, and abandoned, bringing about this feeling of numbing out. And this is why the freeze response occurs far more commonly in children and then transfers into adulthood. Such “paralyzing” psychological phenomena as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxiety states can frequently be understood as symptoms of a freeze response that never had the chance to “let go” or “thaw out” once the original experience was over. And many features of post-traumatic stress disorder directly relate to this kind of unrectified trauma.

During a Freeze response our body activates the parasympathetic nervous system through the dorsal vagal nerve responsible for calming and relaxing the body sends messages to our body that we must stop, stay still, shut down, collapse or immobilize ourselves as this is the best thing we can do. Our body then increases the release of a hormone called endorphin which helps numb our body and increase pain tolerance. We also conserve energy, restrict breathing/hold our breath, become physically stiff and feel our limbs heavier. Our body also decreases our heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, eye contact, facial expressions, sense of awareness of our surroundings, ability to focus, think or speak and worsens our immune system. We may feel emotions such as shame, isolation, hopelessness, dread, numbness, dissociation, depression, helplessness and detached. Sometimes a freeze response, may even cause us to faint or lose consciousness as a way of coping with abuse. A freeze response is not the normal bodily response, it is as if we have a circle to draw but because of certain reasons we cannot complete the drawing, we just draw a dot and stop.

Finally, we may also have the Fawn response, which also develops in abusive environments like the Freeze. The Fawn response is when we try to please others or appease them to avoid harm. During the Fawn response, we seek safety with abusive individuals by being useful, going along with their demands or being helpful to cope with threats, avoid conflict or further harm and protect oneself from danger. During this response, a combination of fight, flight and freeze can occur too. When we are in Fawn mode, we are unable to express our thoughts, needs, feelings and we agree or comply to every request to avoid conflict. We prioritize caring for others even if it harms ourselves, there is difficulty regulating or coping with feelings when alone and a loss of self. We can be really demanding or critical of ourselves, self-hatred raises, ignoring our own needs, having emotional outburst, and feeling overwhelmed. Outcomes such as depression guilt, lack of boundaries and identity issues are often seen.

All of these 4 responses our body has to stress can vary in frequency and intensity depending on the abuse experienced and how an individual or child coped with it. These are extremely stressful for our body and can affect our functioning later in life in a variety of ways. The first step in trying to be more aware of how these responses play a role in our daily life is becoming more self-aware about them, linking how they started and observing when these responses get triggered in your life.