Triggering - Fight, Flight or Freeze (Part 3) | Heal For Life

Triggering – Fight, Flight or Freeze (Part 3)

Trauma memory is implicit and can be ‘triggered’ at any time when a person experiences something related to their trauma via the 6 senses; smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste and intuition. If a person has been assaulted by an alcoholic, whenever they smell alcohol they are likely to be “triggered” into a flight, fight or freeze response as this activation is via the reptilian brain, the sympathetic nervous system and the amygdala which operates faster than any other part of the brain.

The person cannot control such reactions.  When the memory is ‘triggered’ the brain has no sense of time or space (as it is stored in the amygdala) and for all intents and purposes, the survivor is back in the original experience at the age they were when the trauma occurred. When the amygdala is triggered, the ANS responds in one of three ways:

Fight – The fight reaction occurs when the organism perceives that fight is necessary for survival. In humans this can be reacting in anger rather than physically fighting.

Flight – This reaction is activated when flight is the best option for survival and in humans it is running away. A person smells someone with alcohol on their breath at a party and suddenly has to leave the party. Many survivors are constantly moving; a flight reaction to danger.

Freeze – Biologically, success does not mean winning, it means surviving.  It doesn’t matter how, all that matters is that we stay alive until the threat has passed.  We can deal with the consequences later (Levine, 1997).  If fight or flight is no longer an option, immobility (freezing) is the instinctive alternative.  No animal, including humans, has control over instinctual reactions to danger.

There are a number of reasons why the brain may use ‘freeze’ (Levine, 1997):

  1. Freezing can deceive a predator into believing the prey is dead or spoiled.  Many predatory animals will not prey on an immobile animal unless they are very hungry.
  2. Some animals can only detect moving prey and will have great difficulty sensing immobile prey.
  3. In a group, if one member of the group suddenly drops immobile, it can distract the predator and allow the rest of the group time to escape.
  4. Nature provides a powerful painkiller and hallucinogen in endogenous opioids, which allow the prey to experience minimal pain and an altered state of awareness (dissociation) in the final moments.

Many survivors feel ashamed or guilty about how they ‘behaved’ during the experience and many express sincere relief at finding out this information and knowing they are not to ‘blame’ for running away or getting violent or doing nothing at all in a moment of sheer terror.  As children are usually unable to fight back or escape (fight/flight) from trauma (especially interpersonal trauma), freeze (dissociation) is a common response.  If trauma occurs repeatedly or if the original trauma remains unresolved, this dissociation will recur and may even become the first option to the brain during successive experiences that it perceives as threatening.

This brilliant defense mechanism can become maladapted and chronic and if the child suffers extreme trauma in the first 3 years of life, this can also have implications for the development of the self and may even result in diagnosis of personality or dissociative disorders.  Levine (1997) adds:

The human immobility response does not easily resolve itself because the supercharged energy locked in the nervous system is imprisoned by the emotions of fear and terror. The result is that a vicious cycle of fear and immobility takes over, preventing the response from completing naturally.  When not allowed to complete, the responses form the symptoms of trauma.  Just as terror and rage figured in the onset of the freezing response, they will now contribute greatly to its maintenance – even though there is no longer any actual threat present.

Many people survive trauma but carry it around unresolved inside.  People come out of trauma as they go in (Levine, 1997) and so, if they went in fighting, they will come out fighting.  Often, this instinctual rage is so terrifying, and the fear of hurting others so great, that the intensity of these fears reactivates the immobility reaction, creating a vicious cycle of terror and rage.  The energy that was originally activated in the body at the time of threat remains trapped and waiting.  With each experience of freezing, more energy is needed and becomes trapped and as this energy accumulates, so do the symptoms that are trying to contain it.  This energy can be turned in on the self causing depression and various symptoms of PTSD creating disturbances in the reptilian brain and its associated structures, which will then alter behaviour patterns (Levine, 1997).  Changes to patterns of sleep, activity, aggression, eating and sexuality and even obsessions can result.

Functions that are normally regulated by the reptilian brain are a fertile place for symptoms to evolve.  Maladaptive functioning of the reptilian brain can cause anorexia, insomnia, promiscuity and manic hyperactivity to name a few (Levine, 1997). When the ANS is activated via the amygdala, reactions are unconscious and instinctive, often resulting in problem behaviours and even violence. Balancing the ANS and retraining the brain and body can have a huge impact on survivors’ physical, psychological, emotional, and social experiences.


This is caused by consistent, high arousal of the SNS.  Common characteristics include: pale skin, slow heart rate, rapid breathing, being startled easily, unconscious shaking of legs, and a perception of the world as unsafe.  This occurs when the SNS and the PNS are both on ‘high’ and can cause a person to enter a catatonic state if left unchecked.

Panic attacks

Scientists still do not know exactly what starts a panic attack but it is often from a trigger.  A panic attack is activation of the SNS so to bring a person out of it, speak to them (to activate the Brocas area), ask them a question (to help them think and to stimulate the left brain), and model and encourage them to breath slowly (to reduce their anxiety and release oxytocin). Also ask them how they feel which can help them to de-trigger.

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