When we experience a stressful or traumatic event our brains activate different response systems. These are commonly referred to as adaptive responses because they help us adapt, stay safe and survive potentially threatening and/or sudden changes in our environment.
Some adaptive responses are entirely physiological and are a result of the body’s neurophysiological response to stress, threats, and/or danger. These responses can include the fight, flight, and freeze responses, which are activated by the most primitive part of our brain, the limbic system, and at a most basic level, prepare our bodies to fight, run away or hide (freeze) in the face of danger.
Additional physiological responses to stress include: panic attacks, hypervigilance, sleep disturbance, and the like. Even though we are all humans, we don’t always all respond the same way to the same kinds of experiences. For example, some of us can tolerate extreme sports and roller coasters, while others would find that too physiologically overwhelming. The same is true in the face of traumatic events.
On the other hand, some adaptive responses manifest themselves more in the emotional, cognitive and behavioral realm. Some examples of this include being angry, intrusive thoughts, using humor, throwing ourselves into advocacy work to prevent the traumas that happened to us from happening to another, or to avoid dealing with our own trauma history. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg, really. There are so many kinds of responses and each person has their own unique constellation of responses in order to get through life.
While it may be hard to understand sometimes, all of these responses are ultimately there to help us survive a given moment or experience. It’s just a matter of teasing out whether or not they are indeed still helpful in our stimuli-laden, busy, modern lives. Sometimes too, we find that strategies that worked in the past no longer work in the present and in fact, have become a source of trouble, or maladaptive. When this happens it can feel like life is playing a big prank on us.
Many adaptive responses are involuntary, however we are also capable of utilizing new strategies, voluntarily, as we learn and grow. Our work in therapy is centered on promoting self-discovery of the physiological and psychological adaptive responses. What’s serving you? What’s not? What is your body, mind, heart, or spirit needing from you in order to get back in the driver’s seat of your life? This is the work to be done. And, this is what we are here to help with.