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Exploring the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

 

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Carl Thomas

Pastor | Live Free Founder | Lover of Jesus, Philly sports, fitness, tattoos, sarcasm, and craft beers.

The human brain is a complex and fascinating creation, responsible for regulating our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

One of its most remarkable qualities is the fight-flight-freeze response system, an instinctive survival mechanism designed to protect us from immediate danger. 

Understand that when we are confronted with a perceived threat, whether it’s a physical danger or emotional danger, the brain activates our fight-flight-freeze response. This mechanism is necessary for our survival as it mobilizes the body’s resources for rapid action. This is by God’s design because in the event of genuine danger, the quicker we respond, the sooner we can address and solve the problem.

However, once this response is activated, a cascade of physiological changes occurs throughout the body.

When faced with danger, the brain triggers a cascade of physical responses that prime the body for a direct confrontation (fight), escaping the situation altogether (flight), or withdrawing and disconnecting from it (freeze). 

It’s at that moment the sympathetic nervous system, which is a division of the autonomic nervous system, kicks in and unleashes stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream, triggering a series of reactions.

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase. 
  • Breathing becomes more rapid. 
  • Muscles tense, readying themselves for action. 
  • Digestion slows down. 
  • Glucose and oxygen levels surge to supply energy to the muscles.

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As the brain shifts into fight-flight-freeze mode, cognitive processes are also altered.

Our attention becomes intensely focused on the threat at hand, while other peripheral information receives less priority. This phenomenon known as “tunnel vision” restricts our perspective, and can significantly hinder our capacity to make sound decisions aligned with our values, beliefs, and objectives. 

Decisions such as the choice to not use porn or sexually act out.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thinking and impulse control, is temporarily subdued, while the amygdala and other emotional centers take center stage. Consequently, this imbalance can lead to one acting purely instinctively rather than strategically and rationally. 

The fight-or-flight response also has a profound impact on our emotions. The amygdala’s activation triggers the release of stress hormones, leading to increased anxiety and fear. These emotions heighten our vigilance and help prioritize our response to potential threats.

However, the stress or anxiety we experience at that moment can make our heightened emotional state unbearable, adversely affecting our health. This can lead to us resorting to the use of temporary coping mechanisms (such as unwanted sexual behavior) to alleviate the negative feelings or even dissociate from them all together.

Once the “danger” has been eliminated or critically evaluated, the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the complement of the sympathetic system, can trigger a restorative process allowing the body to regain balance by decreasing heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone levels. 

This “rest-and-digest” response allows the body and brain to recuperate from the intense physiological and psychological changes experienced during the fight-or-flight response.

Regrettably, some individuals undergo this process after it’s too late, leading to damaging actions and decisions based on the need for emotional protection which ultimately lead to harm and betrayal.

Although the fight-flight-freeze response of the brain is crucial for human survival and has assisted individuals in managing perilous circumstances throughout time, it is necessary to recognize that persistent stimulation of this response can cause harmful impacts on our psychological and physiological health. 

This is particularly true for people dealing with pornography and other unwanted sexual behaviors who may feel chronically disconnected and isolated, which can lead to an ongoing sense of danger and discomfort. Therefore, identifying these patterns and discovering genuine forms of connection are crucial in fostering a healthier and more stable state of mind, which will ultimately result in the cessation of the necessity for pornography and other coping mechanisms.

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References:

McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain. Physiological reviews, 87(3), 873-904. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00041.2006 ↩

Selye, H. (1950). Stress and the general adaptation syndrome. British medical journal, 1(4667), 1383-1392. doi: 10.1136/bmj.1.4667.1383

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