Survival Responses, Depression and Anxiety

In the face of a traumatic event, the body will defend itself by producing a series of survival responses. We also call these animal defenses since these are healthy responses we share with all other animals.

These animalistic responses are an integral part or our survival instinct. They are: startle, orient, signal cry, fight, flight, and freeze.

If you watch animals in dangerous situations, you will see them using these defenses in order to survive.

The startle response exhibits the sensing of a threat.

The orient response exhibits the need to identify what and where the threat is.

The signal cry response is the call for help.

The fight response exhibits attack or aggressive behaviors when it seems necessary or possible to overcome a threat, or when flight seems unavailable or was unsuccessful.

The flight response exhibits escape behaviors. It can be used if fighting seems unlikely to succeed or when direct confrontation is unavailable.

Freeze is an unconscious response of immobility. It happens automatically when activation reaches a certain threshold in the nervous system. We can differentiate two types of immobility responses.

One response is filled with high energy and tension, where an individual still feels able to move, but gets locked up. This type of immobility can occur if danger is still at a distance and staying motionless may prevent detection.

The other immobility response has a sense of being paralyzed, and unable to move with shallow breathing. Here the nervous system falls into a state of collapse which can evoke low arousal, numbness, depression, absence, blankness, fainting, giving up, or sinking.

In nature, immobility potentially offers life-saving benefits in face of danger. Not moving can prevent being detected by a predator. It can also lead a predator to lose interest. For instance, consider an immobilized mouse being held in a cat’s mouth. It is on the very threshold of life and death.

However, the cat could put the mouse down. If the mouse stays motionless long enough, the cat might lose interest and walk away. That way the mouse’s life will be saved. If it was in the high-aroused state of immobility, it will detect the cat leaving and quickly flee. If it fell into the numb freeze state of collapse, it might gradually awaken and escape.

In a collapsed state of freeze, heart rate slows down, blood pressure drops, muscles soften into vegetative state, the mind becomes numb, and memory storage is impaired. These are physiological responses that mimic death, potentially fooling the cat into dropping the mouse and even leaving.

But the state of collapse certainly offers another big benefit to the mouse. It is an internal state of anesthesia which will numb the mouse from experiencing bodily pain.

If the predator is fooled—i.e. the cat is no longer interested in the mouse, and walks away—the mouse will eventually come out of freeze, connect with its life energy and go into flight, running away and hiding. Note that the life energy has been present all along. It has just been inaccessible due to the collapse response of the nervous system to save the mouse’s life in the face of extreme danger.

From this perspective, anxiety is seen as a result of ongoing high-arousal and depression can be seen as the low-aroused collapse response. The nervous system and psyche are trying to manage the physiological and emotional overwhelm of a series of events or interpersonal injuries by going into high-arousal or low-arousal. So we can see that anxiety and depression initially come out of protective survival responses in the face of danger, overwhelming life circumstances, or threat.

However when these animal defense response states last too long, it will result in a number of adverse symptoms. What was once a survival response will pose another block or threat to our well-being. Ongoing freeze states can impair memory, create a sense of hopelessness, and promote continued passive immobility under which the life energy will remain buried.

By bringing curiosity to our experience we can gradually shift any survival response and cultivate inner resources that will help us reconnect with a sense of inner safety and flow.