Fight, Flight, and Sitting Tight: The Spectrum of Trauma

We’ve all heard of fight or flight, that is, the two ways of dealing with existential threats. Running towards a problem in order to confront it and running away from a problem in order to avoid it, are both physical in nature and employ physiological and hormonal changes. If you’ve ever dealt with a highly stressful situation and had your adrenaline pumping to get you through it, you might remember the post-event shakes, i.e. your body’s effort to process and release the intensity of the situation. It is a combination of chemical, physical, emotional, and mental processing (for more information see Peter Levine and Somatic Experiencing or Bessel van der Kolk’s groundbreaking work on healing trauma).

One important idea posited by these therapists is that when a person is exposed to a trauma, if the energy is not processed and released, it will remain stagnant in the body and reveal itself in a myriad of ways. Cancer and obesity are commonly claimed to be manifestations of trauma that a person has not shed. Addiction and depression are likewise considered satellites of unresolved trauma (Gabor Mate discusses this in depth).

Interestingly, Sebastian Junger investigates the aftermath of trauma not solely through a lens of traumatic events, but also as an effect of the processing and integration of the events. Soldiers returning from the battlefield have had their world shaken, but perhaps the reason they remain unsteady once they return (and suffer with lingering depression, addiction and PTSD) is related to the lack of welcome/inability to integrate as a civilian. Junger’s Vanity Fair piece, How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield, explores the possibility that, “There are obvious psychological stresses on a person in a group, but there may be even greater stresses on a person in isolation.” He goes on to explain, while a stressful event itself may evoke a rush of adrenaline, it is the oxytocin emitted during the intense bonding afterwards that helps establish a sense of closeness and security—feelings that exist on a battlefield among brothers and sisters in arms, but that disappear when a soldier returns home. Because regular civilians cannot understand the experience, soldiers lose the bonding. Their body chemistry shifts as their hormones recalibrate. They are alienated, isolated, and exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress (and rightly so!). 

It was with great foresight then, that Lady Clementine Waring ran Lennel House, a convalescent home for shell shocked soldiers in the United Kingdom. As chronicled in The Smithsonian article, The Shock of War, Lady Clementine was able to offer a refuge to soldiers who were ostensibly uninjured by the devastating artillery battles of World War I, and yet exhibited symptoms of the walking dead. In the safety of her estate, and among other soldiers who had suffered the same horrors of battle, the “damaged” but “unwounded” were able to recover from their “weak nerves” and then be sent back to battle—all this before America even joined the war.

Initial analysis offers a definitive distinction. “Early medical opinion took the common-sense view that the damage [from battle] was ‘commotional,’ or related to the severe concussive motion of the shaken brain in the soldier’s skull. Shell shock, then, was initially deemed to be a physical injury, and the shellshocked soldier was thus entitled to a distinguishing ‘wound stripe for his uniform, and to possible discharge and a war pension. But by1916, military and medical authorities were convinced that many soldiers exhibiting the characteristic symptoms—trembling ‘rather like a jelly shaking’; headache; tinnitus, or ringing in the ear; dizziness; poor concentration; confusion; loss of memory; and disorders of sleep—had been nowhere near exploding shells. Rather, their condition was one of ‘neurasthenia,’ or weakness of the nerves—in laymen’s terms, a nervous breakdown precipitated by the dreadful stress of war…As the war dragged on, medical opinion increasingly came to reflect recent advances in psychiatry, and the majority of shell shock cases were perceived as emotional collapse in the face of the unprecedented and hardly imaginable horrors of trench warfare. There was a convenient practical outcome to this assessment; if the disorder was nervous and not physical, the shell shocked soldier did not warrant a wound stripe, and if unwounded, could be returned to the front” (Caroline Alexander, September 2010, Smithsonian).

In other words, experiencing a blast and witnessing a blast might both be detrimental to a soldier. In the first case, he might have a concussive brain injury. In the second, he might be deemed “unharmed”, but due to the inability of other civilians to understand the horrors of what he actually witnessed (and indeed, the horrors of war were escalating), he was labeled with a “disorder” and sent back into the fray once his nerves were sufficiently calmed to handle more trauma.

Regardless, symptoms are similar, as the Smithsonian article goes on to note. “Limited traumatic brain injury (TBI) may manifest no overt evidence of trauma—the patient may not even be aware an injury has been sustained. Diagnosis of TBI is additionally vexed by the clinical features—difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, altered moods—that it shares with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric syndrome caused by exposure to traumatic events. ‘Someone could have a brain injury and be looking like it was PTSD,’ says Col. Geoffrey Ling, the director of the [U. S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)] study.”

Thus far, we know that humans have a built in mechanism for survival. They will either fight or flee depending on the situation. Both scenarios flood the body with hormones and hopefully, in both instances, a person will find solace in a community that either stood with him or fled with him. PTSD presents a third option: freeze. When a person is so overwhelmed by an event that she is effectively paralyzed and unable to resume normal functioning absent a supportive, inclusive, safe environment, the sufferer will retain the physical, chemical, and psychological dysregulation—always reliving the pain, forever unable to shed the torment.

Let’s suppose that the processing of trauma is facilitated by eye movement. When we walk forward (either towards a threat or away) our eyes are tracking and scanning laterally, similar to the activity of reading in languages when the eyes move across the page (from side to side, as opposed to reading from top to bottom—which will be significant in a later discussion on scrolling through social media).

As previously discussed in Leap to Learn, movement creates learning. It requires navigation, negotiation, manipulation, and assessment. It cultivates independence and personal agency. How much more so when using movement to troubleshoot an existential crisis. Whether running towards danger in order to vanquish the assailant or running away from it in order to preserve one’s own life, both scenarios involve physical movement, awareness of surroundings, pursuit of solutions, and the belief that your present action can impact and sustain your future survival. 

During his interview on the Mark Bell Power Podcast, Andrew Huberman illuminates the mechanism for eye movement and fear suppression by inhibiting activation in the amygdala (the area in the brain associated with processing emotions). Forward movement depresses the fear response and initiates an “alert but calm” state, he explains. It also enables focus which, by extension I would argue, allows for clear decision making, and fosters agency/self-actualization. *Although Huberman suggests that backing away from a threat does not garner the same physiological benefits (dopamine) as facing a threat, I will counter that running away from danger and surviving a life threatening ordeal, does hit you with a high. On life. Because you’re still alive. Due to surviving the traumatic event.

As Huberman mentions, one way of dealing with trauma is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy (EMDR), a minimally invasive technique that involves eye movements and recall. It’s surprisingly successful. How wonderful that manufactured eye tracking can reduce feelings of trauma and helplessness, and allow for a person to escape the panic of reliving a painful memory! EMDR offers hope for those who have been paralyzed by horrors and shocked by tragedy beyond comprehension. Soldiers are not the only ones who can benefit, however. 

The concept of reanimation and moving through paralysis is relevant as it relates to school and the current state of our youth. In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt explore the deteriorating education system and note trends in students who are increasingly unable to handle adversity, who require trigger warnings, who appeal to “adults” instead of learning how to confront and solve their own problems. This is especially pertinent in schools as teachers (and parents) should presumably be teaching children developmentally appropriate material with increasing complexity, not tapering conversations and limiting knowledge acquisition in order to accommodate the fear that one might be hurt. In a follow-up piece, Catching up with ‘Coddling’ part two: Trigger warnings, screen time v. social media, COVID-19 and the continuing decline of Gen Z’s mental health,  the authors promote “saying to a child, ‘I know you’re hurting. But I know that you will get through it. It’s a part of life, and you really can handle it,’” (Lukianoff, Goldstein, Paresky May 12, 2020). Few things are more reaffirming than knowing you are equipped to contend with the hard things. Feeling capable of moving through obstacles is empowering and, I would imagine, antithetical to the feeling of helplessness associated with PTSD.

If PTSD is dependent on feelings of helplessness derived from witnessing intense horror and the subsequent (in)ability to take action, it becomes even more critical to fortify “antifragile” youth. Consider the child who becomes hypersensitized to every slight, anticipates threats with every trigger warning, is anxious of harmful situations that are more contrived than actual—a child with this (trained) world view will become paralyzed when she is confronted with offensive material upon opening her laptop. The mere act of turning on her phone presents her with perceived crisis after crisis, heightening her emotions, flooding her with hormones, and freezing her as she scrolls vertically (not laterally) through feeds that she is powerless to fight—nor can she flee because algorithms are pernicious and the design of social media apps is synonymous with addiction.

Compound this phenomenon with the isolation and alienation inherent in social media, and you have a recipe for disaster. When a child suffers an affront on social media, he may endure symptoms of PTSD. The Mayo Clinic identifies “intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions,” as the four major indicators of PTSD, and I have observed them all reflected in my students. While these symptoms might vary between individuals, or even over the course of one person’s experience, absent a supportive community, the manifestations will linger.

Unsurprisingly, Lukainoff, a lawyer, and Haidt, a social psychologist, draw a correlation between mental health, fragility, and social media use (social media as opposed to “healthy” screen time). Indeed, and to emphasize, kids who stare at tiktok/Instagram/snapchat and scroll through feeds are not tracking laterally, but vertically. They aren’t mimicking forward movement. They are stuck in a freeze while their hormones and emotions are heightened by increasingly inciteful content. Without the release of fight or flight, they will remain traumatized and compromised (ie “fragile”). A person cannot learn how to contend with conflicts in the world if he never engages with threats or negotiates challenges. And this is the danger of our current system.

And so, without a sense of proportion, young people look at slights on social media as existential tragedies, similar to a soldier who witnesses the atrocity of war. We are effectively perpetuating this hyperbolic culture that cripples young people from putting minor offenses into perspective and distinguishing severity on a spectrum. When children are wedded to the notion that their entire existence has been invalidated by pixels on a screen, so much so that they consider suicide, we must consider the extent to which we are creating a self fulfilling prophesy. Kids are manifesting their own reality, one that is grossly exaggerated and taken out of context so that they cannot discern real physical harm from perceived threats in the ether. Let’s teach them how to be resilient and resist this cultural scourge.

Additional Recommended Readings:

The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brain

The Body Keeps the Score


Where the Crawdad’s Sing

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