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The Three F's: Fight, Flight or Freeze

By: Leah Hovel, NCC, Primary Therapist at the Renfrew Center of Chicago

Posted on November 11, 2019

The word "trauma" can be a bit daunting; most of us have a hard time identifying with it or feel that it could ever happen to us. Believe it or not, the trauma response is an extremely adaptive survival mechanism. Imagine a caveman foraging through the woods who is suddenly running for their life from a hungry bear. The caveman has a few options: fight the bear, flee the scene or play dead. Common fight or flight symptoms might include intense emotions (i.e. rage, fear), increased heart rate and adrenaline, shortness of breath, restlessness and even digestive issues. When we experience the freeze response, otherwise known as dissociation, our body aims to protect the individual from emotional and physical harm. These symptoms might include loss of memory, physical and emotional numbness due to opioid-like hormones that reduce pain, tingling, and feelings of unreality or out-of-body experiences.

In our modern world, these sensations can make safe environments feel dangerous when our brain recognizes a trigger. Often, eating disorders and emotion-driven behaviors are the go-to for providing temporary relief in order to cope with the intense experiences. While experiences a trauma response can be extremely intimidating in the moment, the important thing to remember is that our past experiences don't have to determine our present or future. This is where mindfulness comes in handy to help prevent drowning in emotion.

Grounding techniques like tapping into the 5 sensations (what can you see, hear, touch, smell or taste?) or a 3-point check (thoughts, physical sensations, behaviors and urges) can help anchor in the moment when our emotional experience starts to spiral. Lean into your anchor and emotions in those moments, remembering that the brain and body are connected in amazing ways and are simply trying to protect you. If you never ride the wave, you'll never find that you have always been a natural-born surfer.

Leah Hovel, NCC, is a Primary Therapist at the Renfrew Center of Chicago. She received her bachelor's degree in Psychology and Human Development & Family Studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and her master's degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago. Leah has been with the Renfrew Center since May of 2019 and runs Chicago's trauma track group. In Leah's spare time, she loves to head to the dog park with her pup and try out new recipes in the kitchen.
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