When we’re experiencing high threat to our security and safety, our entire body works to protect us. The term “fight or flight” or “fight, flight or freeze” describes what happens when the mind detects a threat and how your body responds to the threat. These reactions have been with us since the beginning of human history. When our great ancestors experienced threats such as, ferocious large animals or encountering poisonous plants, their bodies worked hard to stay alive. As a result, they either courageously fought the threat, ran away from the threat or froze as a way to carefully avoid the threat.
These reactions have helped humans find safety, an important component to living free and joyfully, and survive. As humans have evolved and adapted, the good news is that in modern society, there are less pre-historic threats, like, having to run from vicious creatures. However, threat continues to exist in our modern society and creates the same bodily reactions that were present millions of years ago. Threats such as, experiencing rejection, insecurity, feeling stress at home, school or work, disagreements or arguments, being overworked or overwhelmed, and many others. As we experience these threats, our body still reacts just as strongly as it did when our ancestors were being chased by a sabertooth tiger. The problem is that this strong reaction to minimal threat does not always serve us.
For example, students who feel prolonged stress at school may develop anxiety about coming to school and freeze each time they arrive to school. The result is that these students are not able to complete their work and reach their academic goals. Therefore, this strong reaction of “freezing” does not help these students, rather it harms them. For people who have experienced trauma, these strong reactions can include, becoming really angry and aggressive to someone who looks at them funny in the classroom, or running out of their classroom and/or avoiding coming back to school.
Even though reactions such as the ones provided in the example are involuntary and largely out of our control, there are ways to respond more carefully and supportively. It begins by using our intellect and identifying what happens when we’re experiencing a perceived threat to our safety or a more real threat to our safety. Real threats include, anything that is physically harmful that happens in the present moment and evokes danger in us. For example, being sexually or physically abused, experiencing a catastrophic event or accident, losing someone unexpectedly and tragically, witnessing or being involved in community or domestic violence. These kinds of real threats, or traumas are completely unsafe and need our body to react strongly and wisely to ensure our safety. However, even these kind of threats, need to be tempered with more intellect and rational decision-making.
The more we can have control over our body and mind, we can protect ourselves in less harmful ways.
Imagine if this work was not done. For many of us, we do not have to imagine. We have many real life experiences when our reactions may have been too strong and our body went on overdrive to protect us. In my own life this is best seen in my marriage. For example, when my husband says seemingly “harmful,” I understand it as “rejection” and I no longer feel safe or secure. Instead of listening intently, asking questions and trying to use the information to make me a more evolved and satisfying partner in the marriage, I may “fight” and verbally attack his character or fervently defend my own ego. Internally, my body is on overdrive, my heart begins to pound, a thousand competing thoughts flood, and my body feels tense. This can be disastrous because it does not help me become more one with my husband but rather more defensive and divided. A better response would be taking a couple of deep breathes, reminding myself that I am okay and that my husband is human, and/ or taking some time away to think about what has been said, before responding (self-regulation and CBT coping strategies).
Therefore, it is vitally important that we use our intellects to develop coping strategies to help us create internal safety. As implied above in my example, internal safety is best used when you’re in those “less threatening situations.” Now if my husband was abusing me, it would definitely make sense to “flee” and get out of the harmful environment or “fight” by yelling “stop” and defending myself. Therefore, internal safety coping strategies should not be used when you’re in a very dangerous situation and you must “fight, flight or even freeze” in order to get yourself out of the dangerous situation.
With this being stated, the following strategies bulleted below, are different coping strategies to maintain internal safety.
I would like to add that in order for these coping strategies to become more automatic and replace the involuntary bodily reactions that have not served you, it’s best to practice them regularly even when you’re not feeling internal danger.
Imagine yourself in a safe place (this can be real or fictitious). Allow the comforts of this place to soothe you, using all of your senses.
Affirm yourself using “affirmations” and remind yourself of the truth that makes you who you are. For example, “I am safe, I am strong, I can make my own decisions, I have control over my mind.”
Become attuned with your body and scan your body from head to toe, noticing what your body feels and recognizing any tension. Try to release the tension just by paying attention to your breath and/ or muscle relaxation techniques.
Become attuned with your body by walking and feeling the pressure of your feet hitting the ground beneath you.
Engage in slow, controlled, diaphragmatic breathing. Large exhales helps engage your whole body to feel a calming in your nervous system and self-soothe. It may be helpful to put one hand on your heart and one hand on your belly while you deep breathe.
Cooling off your body by taking a cold shower or putting cold water on your face or taking a hot shower, if you are just in need more physical sensation to get yourself back into your body.
Look in the eyes of someone you love. The eyes are really powerful and we use our eyes to assess whether or not we’re really safe. When we’re in the presence of someone we love, or see an image of someone we love and trust, and look deep in the eyes, we internally receive the message that we’re okay.
Hold something tight that means something to you; a childhood blanket or teddy bear, a pillow, or even a person who feels safe by asking for a hug.
Journal using free association about someone or a place that is safe. For example, write about a time when you felt completely relaxed and safe. Allow your mind to conjure up all the images of this safe place. Using all of your senses, try to record all the details you can imagine.
Call a safe person so you can hear their voice. Their voice can activate feelings of safety and remind you that you’re okay.
Listening to calming music with uplifting lyrics.
You will know that you achieved internal safety when:
You feel more aware of your body
You feel more aware of your environment
Your eyes get softer
Your body feels less tense
Your body feels less hot
Your heartbeat returns to baseline
You feel a sense of control and agency