When I was a kid, I went through a lot of anxiety when my parents divorced. At age 10 in 1999 however, nobody seemed to know what ‘anxiety’ even was. Instead, our family doctor declared that the fearful, nauseating sensations in my body were an inner ear disorder and that the cure was to regularly put garlic drops in my ears (you can’t make this stuff up).
I’m grateful that these days, everyone and their dog are aware roughly (‘ruffly’ if we’re talking dogs) of what anxiety and depression are. With that being said, as the director of a trauma-informed counselling centre I want to help the public keep understanding in a deeper sense what the highs of anxiety and lows of depression really are, beyond their catchy buzzwords. Let’s get to it.
Anxiety and the Fight or Flight Responses
Let’s look at how our brains evolved. Long ago, we dealt with threats through what we now call fight or flight responses. When under attack, mammals were able to survive if they could route all of their energy and bloodflow towards only the absolute necessary functions of fighting or running. A long-ago evolved stress response and the perfect tool for the job when a life is on the line.
The problem is, this tool is not so well-fitted to modern life. For one thing, a stress response that pits us against others or tells us to run is hard on relationships. This primitive way of dealing with stress is antisocial because while it may protect our nervous systems from a feeling of danger, it pushes others away. People in our lives are often confused when they have touched upon a trigger and suddenly we become angry and distant.
Adding to the puzzle, the triggers for our fight-flight response most often have little to do with what is actually happening. Triggers of distress are most often people, places and things (nouns in generally, really) that remind us of pain we went through earlier in life. A simple look on someone’s face could activate body-memories (flashbacks of emotions from the past) of the bully, the distant father or the critical mother… then with lightning fast speed our fight-flight response kicks in. The relaxed and social front brain deactivates, pumping all of our energy towards survival.
Lost for words. Plagued by a vague feeling of dread. Buzzing. Shaking. Thoughts going too fast. Can’t focus. These distracting symptoms that we call anxiety are really our primal brain doing its best to protect us.
Look brain, I know you’re trying to help but…
Other common terms for fight-flight: Anxiety, sympathetic nervous system response, hyperarousal, becoming activated, feeling jacked, feeling too much, the tingly wiggles (OK I made that last one up)
Depression and the Freeze and Collapse Responses
If you thought a fight-flight response gets in the way of life, just wait until we unpack an even older and more primitive response to stress (think reptiles). When we are very overwhelmed, when we feel deeply worried, or when stress is chronic and unsolvable, even older parts of our brain act to defend us: We are now visited by the freeze and collapse responses.
Immobile and paralyzed, we may feel numb, empty or dead inside. Our bodies are really trying to protect us and give reprieve from constant anxious fight-flight at this point (see de-pressed/deep rest). This ancient play dead response was great as a last resort when a bear was too close, but really isn’t helpful when we shut down to conflict in our relationships and can’t make sense of arguments.
Once again, being triggered into a freeze (a buzzing, paralyzed ‘wired but can’t act’ feeling) or a collapse (a low, numb, catatonic and shamey feeling) means that your unconscious brain concluded you were under such great a threat that is needs to deploy one its last resort survival strategies.
Blank. Trapped. Sluggish. Lethargic. Mind is empty, but feeling very badly about it. Foggy and detached, as if watching a movie. These symptoms may mean dissociation (a topic that needs its own article) on the more chronic means of adapting to stress that the body utilizes and that we call depression.
Other common terms for freeze-collapse: Depression, dorsal-vagus nerve, shut down, numb, offline, hypoarousal, 100-yard stare, feeling too little, tonic immobility (and that doesn’t mean you had too much gin)
Bonus: Social Support as our Newest Stress Response
Fight-flight and freeze aren’t going anywhere. Denying and avoiding them hasn’t and won’t ever work. Because at their core, these are actually highly adaptive and helpful responses the body is using to protect us, they deserve some gratitude. We need to accept them and even try to be friends with them (seriously, they pass over quicker when greeted with mindfulness). Punching your boss or running from a meeting, or paralytically trembling fear aren’t particularly helpful, but there is some good news.
The newest and most uniquely human form of stress management we have is our social support system. Safe connection, secure attachment and knowing “you have my back” with other people, and with a self-compassionate response to our own emotions is the grandmaster of stress reduction. This is the lifelong art of learning to relate safely and positively to everything, including people, places and things extrenal to us, as well as the ‘parts’ (thoughts, emotions, sensations) that make up our inner worls.
Not only does this so called ventral-vagal (named after the nerve travelling down the front of the body) safety response deal with stress in a way that feels good and calming, but it actually enhances relationships in the process. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this, but this is the system that counselling is based on. Individual counselling for helping us to calm and soothe our inner parts, relationship counselling to help create safe connection between partners, family and friends… Or hiring a CBT detective when it comes to forming a concrete plan of action.
Because as therapists, we don’t prefer that our clients run from us or punch us, we have based our careers around helping people into the experience of inner and outer safety. If we evolved a stress-management response of warmth and connectedness, aren’t you eager to take the brain’s newest circuitry for a spin?
Carson Kivari is co-founder of Thrive. You can read his other articles here.
While he is no longer seeing clients, he personally hired Thrive’s whole team and would be glad to connect you with a counsellor you feel a trusted click with.