In my last post, Why We Respond to Trauma by Fighting, we reviewed the four responses to the anxiety and fear that trauma creates. These four responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn/appease. The primary focus in that particular post was the trauma response of fighting.
In this post, we look more closely at the trauma response — fleeing.
For early humans, fleeing (physically running) made sense. They regularly faced dangerous animals and competition with others for scarce resources. Survival was a matter of fighting or fleeing. But what does it look like on an emotional level for those who flee?
Why Trauma Can Cause Fleeing
The physiological underpinnings of the flight response stem from the same ones that cause the other three. When it senses a threat, the brain will release neurochemicals to prepare the body to respond. Adrenaline takes over your body, raising your heart rate, breathing rate, tensing your muscles, and preparing you to survive in whatever manner possible.
It’s important to know that the autonomic nervous system is designed to protect you even when you don’t recognize a threat. It will stay on alert in the background, picking up on the emotional signals you’re unconsciously sending it. And it will continue to maintain those levels of stress hormones in its efforts to protect you.
Fleeing from Emotional Discomfort
If you’re a trauma survivor, you may be wondering what the concept of fleeing looks like. After all, once the initial trauma has passed, what is there to escape?
But if you’re a trauma survivor, you also know how triggers feel. You’ve probably experienced anxieties, fears, and perhaps phobias that persist. Few people enjoy feeling those, so we try to find ways to adapt and minimize those feelings.
Indeed, it is the very process created by the autonomic nervous system that drives this behavior. The flight response will prompt you to bury these feelings — to run away from them — so you can avoid them.
What Fleeing Looks Like Today
Therapists have identified several aspects of the modern human’s flight response to trauma. They include addiction, chronic busyness, perfectionism, and adrenaline-seeking.
Individuals struggling with addiction often use substances (or other means) to numb their painful feelings. Anxiety and depression can be covered up through chemical means. Being high or intoxicated feels better than dealing with the fear and trauma triggers they would otherwise have to face.
Trauma survivors can also use other types of compulsive behaviors to get the same response. One of these is chronic busyness. Being always on the go, of course, is a hallmark of our culture.
For those running from trauma, though, it’s more than that. By continually living their life in the middle of a whirlwind, they can run from reminders of their trauma. Their brain “protects” them by always urging them forward, away from the threat of reliving the trauma. This kind of busyness looks like those who are involved in countless activities and are planning numerous projects on top of each other. They never find time to slow down.
This pattern can even turn into a type of obsessive-compulsive behavior. You can see this play out in those who are workaholics, shopaholics, and compulsive overeaters. They engage in these behaviors at the risk of their physical, mental, financial, and relationship health. Adrenaline junkies are the same way. They pursue risky, often dangerous activities as a way to run.
The autonomic nervous system is doing its best to keep these trauma survivors from facing the discomfort of the memories and emotions created by trauma. Unfortunately, its efforts to protect often compound the issue.
You Can Stop Running
If you recognize yourself in these descriptions, I want you to know that it is possible to stop running from your trauma. You can find healing. If you’re reading this to address trauma’s impact on your life, please take the next step.
Feel free to visit my page about Trauma and PTSD to learn more about how I can help. Or contact me for a free 15-minute consultation.