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The second state of the autonomic ladder is sympathetic flight/fight. Flight and fight are both sympathetic, but have unique feelings, behaviors and overall functioning, so will be discussed separately. If we don’t have access to the safe/social state, the flight/fight state follows as we drop one rung down the Polyvagal ladder.
The flight/fight state does exactly what it says it does. This state is responsible for an organism’s ability to run away or use aggression. The point of these behaviors is to increase the chances of survival, just like the other states of the autonomic nervous system.
But specifically, the flight behaviors come before the fight behaviors. We at first attempt to avoid or run away from danger. If that is unsuccessful, then we shift into our fight behaviors. Rather than creating space, we actually decrease space. The evolutionary benefit is to get the danger to back off (fight), which then creates an opportunity for the potential prey to escape to safety (flight).
Flight and fight both stem from the sympathetic nervous system and have the same immediate biological responses, including:
Higher heart rate
Ears attuned to danger
Increased metabolic rate
Shorter breaths into the chest and shoulders
Increased pain tolerance
Better ability to scan for danger
A moment of actual danger involving the flight/fight system looks and feels different than the day-to-day experience of it. This system is supposed to be active for very short periods of time. The sympathetic energy involved in these short periods of time evolved to be used immediately, not to linger in our system day after day. We’re going to focus more on the daily experience of the flight/fight system.
What flight feels like
There are feelings of anxiety, worry and apprehension. These are feelings of being in or anticipating danger. The body is in a mobilized state; it is prepared to flee. So the experiential feelings reflect an organism that is experiencing danger.
What fight feels like
If someone is stuck in a sympathetic fight state, they’ll have distinct feelings compared to flight. The body is still in a mobilized state. But if someone is in the fight state, evasion hasn’t worked. So aggression is the next step. Therefore, the feelings associated with fight are ones like anger, irritability and hostility.
In the flight/fight state, reality is experienced through the lens of danger. The world in this state is:
Out to get me
Even when this person sees someone else with a neutral face, they may experience it as threatening. A face that is staring forward in a daydream or boredom with no obvious emotion might be seen as dangerous. You can surely imagine that someone in this state is going to experience and interact with the world much differently than someone who is in their safe/social state.
What flight/fight looks like
The person stuck in a flight/fight state is going to be more tense, fidgety, evasive, loud and direct. This person might be perceived as (or maybe actually is) more rude and socially inappropriate. This person will have more difficulty in interacting with their fellow students or co-workers, seeing threat in their daily interactions. This person is more likely to flee in anxiety or erupt in anger when something goes wrong.
Remember - the body is being mobilized. It’s prepared to run or fight in the face of danger. The observable behaviors for someone in this state will reflect this. It may not be overtly obvious, but there are subtle cues that can be observed.
One of these is in the breath. When flight/fight is active, the breath becomes shorter and faster. Breath goes quickly into the chest and the shoulders. The shoulders go up and down and the chest expands out and then decompresses. When in the safety state, breath goes lightly into the belly. As a result of this faster rate of breath, the individual will have a faster rate of speaking.
In the flight/fight state, we have dropped down the Polyvagal ladder into defense. Now, we are creating distance from others because others are seen as a threat. Someone in this state will have difficulty with being close physically and emotionally, even with safe others. This is not all or nothing. But the more entrenched someone is in their flight/fight state, the more pronounced these difficulties will be.
You can recognize someone in a stuck flight/fight state through their face. They will no longer be utilizing their facial muscles in the same way. They won’t be smiling, eyes might be wider, they lack eye crinkles and their neck won’t tilt to the side when they listen.
Someone in a stuck flight/fight state will have diminished ability to hear others accurately. Their inner ear muscles are now attuned to listening for danger sounds like high-pitched screams or low bass sounds like a growl. They may not be able to hear the full range of voice of a loved one, nor the intention of their words. Sarcasm is lost to the person who is not identifying the humor and is neurocepting the dead-pan delivery as threat.
Creating connections with others is a major challenge to someone in a stuck flight/fight state. Because that individual is perceiving others as a threat and missing cues of safety or misinterpreting neutral cues. Their ability to be close and form relationships is lower. This individual can be seen to be avoiding interactions with others or becoming a bully. This individual will connect with others who are in a similar flight/fight state. Gangs are comprised of individuals in a similar flight/fight state who also share environmental, racial and cultural similarities.
Coming out of flight/fight
Ideally, the sympathetic energy of the flight/fight state is used in a large burst of movement. The individual runs away or uses aggression as a means to mitigate danger. Then they return to the safe environments and safe people in their lives.
This ideal may not be the reality for you. But it’s still possible to exit from this state and climb the autonomic ladder, back into the safe/social state. Not easy, but possible.
And the way to do that is to mindfully attune your conscious awareness to the inner sensations of what it feels like to be in a stuck flight/fight state. That means being curious (not evaluative and judging) about what it feels like to be in that state. And then allowing those feelings to be felt. The conscious awareness and experiencing allows the stuck energy to begin the process of getting unstuck.
But this can be too much to ask. Before delving into the stuck state, it can be helpful to build up the strength of the safe/social pathways. And that means spending more time in that state, activating those pathways. Mindfulness can be helpful here in actually noticing and experiencing what it’s like to feel safe.
You can do this through discovering what brings you to feelings of safety. What types of music, hobbies, movements, sensory stimulation, for example. Whatever brings you those feelings of safety can be an avenue for strengthening those pathways. But you have to do so mindfully and really experience the feelings and sensations of safety.
Name one instance from this past week when you felt your flight/fight state active.
How could you tell?
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