A tiny fragment of nucleic acid wrapped inside a thin protein coat has turned our world upside down. Not technically a living organism itself, it has wreaked havoc on our lives. Even as we do our best to protect ourselves by wearing masks and by social distancing, we are all too aware that millions of our fellow humans have contracted the virus and there is no guarantee that we or our loved ones won’t fall ill as well. There is so much that is out of our control. Our fate is uncertain. We feel frightened.
In the face of this fear, our sympathetic nervous system, acting outside of our conscious control, kicks into high gear, releasing a cascade of chemicals into the bloodstream, stimulating a “fight, flight or freeze” response. This chemical storm is designed to aid us in physically defending ourselves against perceived threats. But our tools for fighting this virus by physical means are limited. We cannot fight it with spears as our ancestors fought the wooly mammoths; we cannot even fight it at present with the modern weaponry of vaccines. Neither can we flee from this virus any further than into the relative safety of our homes, nor can we protect ourselves by freezing in place and pretending to be dead as our ancestors did when being stalked by predators.
When we cannot respond externally, what is left to our sympathetic nervous system in its reflexive drive to protect us is to play out these fight, flight and freeze responses internally. Unfortunately, when these powerful protective mechanisms are turned inward, they are not only ineffective, they can actually cause harm.
When the fight response is directed inward, perceived threats give rise to repetitive cycles of heightened but inefficient mental and physical activity. We have difficulty relaxing, difficulty pausing to connect with ourselves long enough to determine what we really need. Not knowing what we need, we engage in behaviors which are harmful to us. We literally become our own aggressors.
The flight response primes us to run from danger, but fleeing inward, there is nowhere to run. The flight response revs us up, keeps us on high alert, if not actually running, at least ready to run, but all to no useful purpose and all at great price to our well-being.
When neither fight nor flight is an option, the sympathetic nervous system has one more trick up its sleeve, the freeze response. In the wild, the freeze response renders the body motionless so as either to go unnoticed or so as to be thought dead by a predator. When the freeze response is turned inward, it causes contraction in the body, as if immobilizing and shrinking the body might allow us to escape danger. Yet another maladaptive response to threat, this contraction diminishes both our capacity to move and our capacity to feel, over time, quite literally rendering us frozen and numb.
So what’s a person to do?