When Your Fight or Flight Response does More Harm than Good

shock .png

The amygdala is the part of your brain designed to keep you safe by triggering your fight or flight response. When you have been abused or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) your amygdala becomes overactive. You are almost always in a flight or flight mode. This puts major stress on your adrenals, your heart, your mental well-being.

I have been a “jumpy” person as long as I can remember. People tease me because I startle very easily. I have felt a lot of shame over it, believing that it made me look less professional and more like a drama queen. I have always hated that I practically jump out of my skin at the slightest sound or if a person walks up behind me. Even once I recognize that I am safe, my nervous system takes a very long time to catch up to my awareness. Screaming, shaking, and crying can continue for minutes after I have been startled even when I know I am safe. It is quite embarrassing.

What I have learned from studying trauma is these reactions are very ordinary for people who have suffered abuse or trauma. They are so common that there is a term for it called overactive amygdala. Triggers that are related to emotional past experiences produce stronger reactions in the amygdala, which is also believed to regulate long-term memory storage based on the strength of the emotions associated with a remembered event. When an overactive amygdala regularly overreacts, it becomes an anxiety disorder.

When I work with victims of abuse, I help them reclaim their power by making a personal plan that involves incorporating many different modalities that I have personally used and found helpful. Like the spokes on a tire, each one plays a part in making the tire stable. Addressing and strengthening the many spokes on the wheel of their anxiety and overactive amygdala is critical to healing.

Steps from Calm Clinic you can take to relieve anxiety and reduce the opportunities for triggers:

  1. Get Organized - Chaos and disorganization can lead to being late, unable to find necessary items, arguments, and all kinds of stressful situations.
  2. Create Routines - Routines are comforting and important to counteract the anxious feelings and help you feel in control.
  3. Schedule Free Time - This gives you the opportunity for self-reflection and time to clear your mind of ruminating thoughts.
  4. Meditate - This gives you a chance to set aside your problems and focus on simply “being”.
  5. Sleep Well - Eight to nine hours of deep sleep is crucial to retaining a healthy mind and body.
  6. Eat Well - Eating a regular and healthy diet is necessary to replenish your body when anxiety has sapped its resources.

Reading, information, and training resources I have found helpful and highly recommend*:

The Highly Sensitive Person, How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You by Elaine N. Aron, PhD.

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body and the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

A  website that offers free self-help online courses and information Unlearning Anxiety

TRE® – Tension, Stress and Trauma Release Exercise. Using therapeutic muscle tremors evoked by the TRE exercise process is a natural, internal, neuro-physiological response of the body to reduce its own stress and restore a sense of well-being. The person I recommend for this training is Svava Brooks.

Overactive Amygdala, a poem by Christy Heiskala

O Amy
What is wrong with me?
I jump at the slightest sound.
My heart races, 
and I can’t slow it down.
I clinch my jaw and bite my nails.
Nobody understands, 
Why I’m going off the rails.
Nobody understands,
I don’t like it either.
I want to crawl out of my own skin.
Shed that life behind me, 
and start over again.
I long to feel anchored.
I want to feel secure.
But, I will leave, of that I am sure.
Fight or flight, that is all I know.
It’s deep within, 
no matter how much I grow.
O Amy
You were designed to save me.
Nobody understands,
You’re also what is killing me.
O Amy
Why can’t you see what you are doing to me?
Please stop.
I am safe now.
I am throwing out my anchor.
I don’t want to fight or flight anymore.
O Amy
Why can’t you see?
You are no longer valuable to me.
I am down on my knees,
Begging you please,
O Amy
Let me be.

*Disclaimers: Nothing in this blog post is given as medical advice, please check with your personal doctor or therapist. I am not a doctor or therapist. I am a certified victim advocate. I do not receive any compensation in any form from any of my recommendations.