Updated: Aug 16, 2020
During this “Coronavirus Crisis” I have increasingly observed the general public's panic, fear and anxiety responses. At a drug store an employee stocking shelves sneezes and watches helplessly as every customer runs for the door. A woman acts out aggressively toward a visitor from another state where the virus has been more widespread triggered only by the nightly news and seeing an out of state license plate.
Fight, flight or freeze, these are human responses to chemicals released in brain due to increased activity in the amygdala intended to keep us alive and safe. These responses serve us remarkable well on the Serengeti of Africa where a prowling predator is sizing us up for its appetizer. The brain is designed to shut down the executive functions of the pre-frontal cortex (“PFC”) and force an immediate response on the body to run, defend itself or freeze all the mental and bodily functions not crucial to surviving severe and immediate risk. These survival responses keep us alive on the Serengeti. In our homes and businesses these responses isolate us and put others at risk. In critical life and death moments taking a time to gather our thoughts and think about our options is likely to put us at greater risk. Do extreme emotions and responses that look like fight, flight or freeze keep us safe from the Coronavirus? In this modern world, we city people face threats at home or walking out our front door that require good judgment and well-reasoned perspective. These executive functions primarily generated in the PFC are the functional brakes for the desperate survival reactions of the amygdala that are so necessary for survival on the Serengeti.
Brain scans show that those of us who survive traumatic experiences, adverse childhood experiences or long term emotionally abusive relationships have impairment in activity levels of the PFC. Simply put, the brakes don’t work. A healthy brain is typically wired to look for emotional off-ramps from extreme emotions. Emotions in the trauma brain go from 10 to 100 miles per hour in micro-seconds and it is unable to slow down the amygdala's response. In the trauma brain the PFC shuts down the same way it would if you were confronted by an aggressive predator on the open Serengeti. No brakes. When we see our neighbors unable to control or minimize the acuteness of their panic and fear, the brain is only trying to keep them safe in the only way it can – but without brakes.
Effective therapy can help. The brain uses shorthand to attach meaning to traumatic events. The meaning we attached to those awful past experiences can be easily triggered by a similar or associated event. In that moment, the PFC shuts down and there we are back on the freeway with no brakes. In therapy we help you effectively change the meaning associated to those past events helping you to feel safe when exposed to triggers that in the past caused your personal fight, flight or freeze responses. Changing the meaning helps to repair the brakes. You can then look for and take the off-ramps from extreme emotion. Therapy is so much more than talking about your problems.
Bill Parker, J.D., M.S. is a lawyer and Florida Registered Mental Health Therapist Intern and Owner of Experience Matters Counseling, LLC. and Chief Executive Officer of Experience Matters, Inc. a not-for-profit corporation. He can be reached at Bill@ExperienceMattersCounseling.com.