What Happens When We Suppress Our Natural Threat Response?

From our Friends at Khiron Clinics

The Role of the Nervous System

What is your purpose in life?

People have pondered this question for thousands and thousands of years, and it means different things to everyone. For some, it might be their families, and others might consider their occupation to be their true calling; however, for your nervous system, the answer is incredibly straightforward – its purpose in life is to keep us alive.

Humans have only started living in cities, towns, and even houses for a very short amount of time, especially when you consider how long we have been on this planet. And since we emerged from the primordial soup and moved through various stages of our evolution, our nervous system has been helping us to remain safe, procreate, and ultimately further our species.

Doing all of this in the wild isn’t easy – animals can’t afford to chill out, relax, and hope for the best. It’s a dog eat dog, fish eat fish, and snake eat snake world out there. If you’re not looking out for things that want to eat you, you’re sitting in the firing line. So, far before we became humans, we evolved ways of mitigating this risk.

If we had a reasonable chance of overcoming the predator, we would fight back, and if the odds were stacked against us, we would flee. Later, we started to freeze – we completely stopped moving, played dead, and hopefully, the predator stopped trying to kill us. Then, when an opportune moment arose, we could either fight back or run. Finally, we developed vigilance – the state of being aware of our surroundings and looking out for danger.

However, while our brains have become far more complex than they were hundreds of thousands of years ago when we were swimming around the ocean as fish and later taking the first steps onto dry land, much of our more primitive wiring remains.[1]

The Perils of Being Self Aware

Our brain still constantly looks out for things that could harm us and tells us to fight, fleeor freeze. This all happens in the mammalian brain[2] or limbic system. We don’t get much say in how the limbic system responds – it all happens subconsciously. And all animals, bar humans, follow these instructions without question. When they’re away from the threat, they shake to release the pent up energy build up in their bodies; however, humans can override this response with the most recently developed part of our brain – the neocortex.

 When we became able to do this, we opened up the door to nervous system dysregulation. Don’t forget – we’re self-aware creatures.[3] Animals don’t worry about looking silly – they just follow instructions from the nervous system.

Humans, on the other hand, definitely care about how they look. We have to navigate society and its complex social norms, and it might not be acceptable in certain situations to run away or play dead. We might not want to shake after a threat for fear of looking scared or even mad.

Physics and the Nervous System

When we suppress our natural threat response, we’re essentially overriding thousands and thousands of years of evolution. The Law of Conservation of Energy, also known as the First Law of Thermodynamics, states that energy cannot be created or destroyed – it just changes forms. So, when we don’t discharge the energy from the threat response, it becomes stored in our body, waiting to be triggered.

Our nervous systems want to discharge this energy and complete the cycle, and given the chance, it will attempt to. However, it didn’t evolve to consider our feelings – evolution didn’t happen with happiness in mind. When our nervous system is trying to complete this cycle, it can be extremely uncomfortable, and we can feel exactly as we did when we faced the original threat. We might feel anxious if we’ve been put into a vigilant state, shut-down or dissociated if we’ve entered freeze, and even angry or aggressive if we’re in fight.

Many of the mental health problems people are diagnosed with in modern times, such as anxiety, anger management issues, or dissociative disorder, are actually the result of nervous system dysregulation. Additionally, certain behaviours such as substance use or self-harm are often self-medicating this malfunctioning system.

Fortunately, nervous system dysregulation doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Therapies are available that can help us process this past baggage and free our nervous systems from the endless trigger-reaction-trigger-reaction cycle that can plague us. We can also learn to self-regulate. Certain activities such as deep breathing, cold showers, and stretching can bring our nervous systems back to its ideal resting state.

Modern medical science often thinks of the brain and body as two separate entities, with no consideration of the complex interplay between the two. Often, the answer lies within our history rather than just our heads.

If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

Sources:

[1] ​​2 You Didn’T Evolve To Be Happy – How To Hack Evolution To Find Your Bliss – Benjamin Fry”. Benjamin Fry, 2019, https://www.benjaminfry.co.uk/post/2-you-didnt-evolve-to-be-happy-how-to-hack-evolution-to-find-your-bliss/.

[2] Porges, S W. “Orienting in a defensive world: mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory.” Psychophysiology vol. 32,4 (1995): 301-18. doi:10.1111/j.1469-8986.1995.tb01213.x

[3] Parker, S. T., Mitchell, R. W., & Boccia, M. L. (Eds.). (1994). Self-awareness in animals and humans: Developmental perspectives. Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511565526

Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to get our news and updates direct to your inbox.

Donate