When unexpected events occur it shakes your foundations, your normal way of being. If you feel uncertain, unsafe or scared then your nervous system will react with either fight, flight or freeze responses.
People who get angry at what is occurring, who rage that more should be done are having a ‘fight’ reaction. The adrenaline and cortisol pumping through their veins fuels an aggressive reaction.
There may not be an enemy that can be fought. In this case, you can’t fight the Corona Virus in the traditional sense. It doesn’t have have a physical body for you to face up to, seething and threaten it and go several rounds in the boxing ring.
This is what those in a fight response are ultimately wanting to do because the act of fighting uses up the adrenaline and cortisol enabling them to calm back down, for their nervous system to regulate.
Without the fight, the cortisol and adrenaline stay in their blood and gets stored in the body as tension, tightening of muscles, clenching of the jaw, etc.
It takes emotional awareness to notice what is occurring and to take action to self-soothe, rather than lash out at others with the upset that you have. Be aware many people may behave in ways they normally wouldn’t as they are in ‘survival’ mode, feeling unsafe and a need to protect themself and their family. To some, it may literally feel life-threatening, so their behaviours may be extreme.
Those who react with a ‘flight’ response will want to run away to escape the danger. They will find it hard to be still and being locked in their home may feel stifling and like being in prison.
The cortisol and adrenaline in their system are priming their muscles to run, run, run, so it’s almost impossible for them to meditate, relax, deep breathe, be still and enjoy the chance to rest and strengthen up. The flight reaction of their nervous system is telling them it is not safe to relax and enjoy the time at home.
Even though they may consciously want to relax, they can’t. The reason for this is that the ‘survival’ mechanism is a different part of the brain, the hindbrain, that takes over when we’re in a fight, flight or freeze response. The neocortex or rational thinking part of the brain gets suppressed.
Evolution wise this made sense. When a lion is about to attack you it doesn’t help you to be able to talk to it or to think slowly through all your options, the pros and cons of each, to decide what to do. You need to react instinctively and quickly in the face of danger, and that is what the limbic system does. That’s why it is so hard to think clearly and express yourself if you’re in a heightened nervous system reaction with high levels of a fight, flight or freeze response occurring.
Those people that have a ‘freeze’ reaction are instinctively hiding and holding still, hoping that the lion won’t see them. They hold their breath, breathe shallowly and slow down their internal bodily reactions, coming to a place of panicked stillness in the hope that they won’t be seen.
They may dissociate from their body, literally escape it by focusing elsewhere in their mind, off in daydreams or splitting off part fo their consciousness.
They literally jump out of their body, like energetically floating above it. This is the out of body experience people can have during a near-death experience. They see their body from the perspective of being outside of it. They’ve been so scared, so terrified of death, they’ve jumped out of their skin.
This too is part of the ‘survival’ mechanism. If the lion was about to eat you, you don’t want to be fully conscious in your body and feel it, so you jump out. The body also gets pumped full of opioids which numb you, so you don’t feel yourself being eaten or killed.
That’s why some people will seem numb, not fully present, not with you when you try to talk to them. They’re not. They’ve escaped. This can be dangerous as someone who is dissociated from their body can be accident-prone. They’re not paying close attention to what they do. It takes them longer to notice that they’re touching the hot kettle and it’s hurting them.
They may be forgetful. If you are dealing with someone who has dissociated, numbed out, know it’s not that they don’t care. They have switched off out of panic, out of terror, feeling like death is imminent. We need to help such a person to reconnect with their body, to bring them back to the present moment gently, compassionately.
Don’t expect too much of them or ask them to do anything complex. They simply can’t. Until they calm back down they can’t concentrate and be responsible for others. This is where compassion and understanding can help prevent any judgements, arguments and accusations. When you know what is occurring you can adjust your expectations to help the person to recentre, to come back into their body.
Looking them in the eyes, holding their hands or feet, talking to them softly, this will gently invite them back into connection with their body. Standing on the grass with bare feet will help them to ground. Touching things, smelling things, tasting things – reengaging the senses will help bring them back. There’s a lot you can do to assist such a person.
Essential oils can be very calming and again help you to connect back to the present moment. The olfactory bulb is connected directly to the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain, so smells quickly alter how we are feeling emotionally. Within seconds a comforting smell can result in a little or a lot of relaxation.
Gentle movement can help a person who is coming out of a freeze response. Whether that be yoga, tai chi, qi gong. You don’t want to do heavy aerobic exercise as that ramps the body up. You want to do gentle, calming exercise so the person feels safer.
One process that can help with all of these reactions – fight, flight and freeze – is Tension and Trauma Release Exercises (TRE). It is a series of gentle exercises designed to start the body’s automatic stress, tension and trauma release process.
The body has a built-in mechanism to ‘shake off’ tension, stress and trauma. The shaking uses up the adrenaline and cortisol from the fight, flight, freeze reactions and it enables the body to calm back down, to drop out of a parasympathetic freeze reaction or a sympathetic fight or flight state, to the calm parasympathetic state where we can connect and relate to others.
I can teach individuals TRE as part of an online appointment or an in-person appointment. You can then use it to help your body calm and relax whenever you need to. It’s a great self-care tool that not only helps you to come out of a heightened nervous system state but also helps you to open up and expand.
When your nervous system calms, it no longer sends your brain signals that you’re in danger, so the mind relaxes too, and the defensive mechanisms that you’ve used to protect yourself start to soften. They start to loosen up so it’s easier for you to choose to think and behave differently than you’ve always done. You’re no longer fighting against yourself so much.
When we’re in a defended state we may consciously want to change or start a hobby or change our life, but internally our body resists it, subconsciously thinking and reacting as if the change is a threat and should be avoided, hence the resistance and difficulty taking action.
When your nervous system is relaxed and calm, and your body is feeling safer, you don’t have so much resistance. your body actually wants to connect with others and enjoy life.
It is my hope that this blog helps you to understand the various reactions that those around you may be having during this challenging moment in time with the Corona Virus. It’s not that people are cold, callous, uncaring of others. They’re just reacting in survival, feeling a need to compete with others in order to survive. They want the toilet paper, food, etc to ensure they and their loved ones are okay. This is part of our primal, instinctive reactions when we’re in a fight, flight, freeze reaction.
With empathy and compassion, we can help each other to calm, to do the best we can through all of this. Try not to take people’s reactions personally and do what you can to help yourself and others to balance up, stay grounded and enjoy these times as much as we can. Blessings to all. Namaste.
By Jodi-Anne (28 March 2020).
- Further free guidance on healing techniques and self-love are available on the Life Insights and Healing from child abuse pages of this website.
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