Clearly, the human body is built to survive. And the mechanisms that kick in to save our asses are as built-in as breathing heavily after a sprint or sex, as instinctual as brushing shaggy hair out of our faces when we encounter someone or something we need to see more clearly.
What’s more, the survival mechanisms we employ to escape imminent physical doom are also important parts of less extreme, yet equally vital physiological and psychological survival strategies. Physical responses to mortal danger don’t have to originate only from physical situations, like a mother grizzly discovering you standing between her and her cubs. They can just as easily — and probably, in today’s world readily — arise from psychological ones, such as a sneaking suspicion that your boss is going to fire you at the one-on-one meeting they just scheduled, or the surprise discovery of your spouse in bed with the neighbor.
In order to trigger the biochemical cascade of fight-flight-fright, our brains don’t have to be presented with cut-and-dried physical reasons to pump our systems full of glucose, adrenaline, cortisol, etc. The juices can start flooding our systems over perceived threats, as well. And those threats can be just as existentially distressing if they’re job-related or relationship-related, as threats that involve our physical being.
If something truly threatening to any aspect of your survival is registering, your brain doesn’t particularly care whether it’s a charging bear or a discharging boss. It doesn’t matter if the grizzly is coming at you with a roar, or your spouse is coming with a scream. A threat is a threat, and the part of our brains that differentiates between different sorts of threats is offline, at the time we’re reacting to something wretched happening to us. Sure, the refined, discriminatory, gray-area-friendly parts of our brains are still there, but they are waiting till after the excitement has died down, before they start to tell the difference between a purely physical fight-flight-fright scenario and one that’s all about our emotions or our self-worth or our hopes for the future. The problem is, in the interim, while the sensible part of our brains is “down,” the survival-based part of our brains is flooding our bodies with all sorts of biochemical franticness that both hops us up and dulls us down, that pumps us full of energy, while shutting down the very systems that can regulate the rest of our delicately balanced systems.
So, where does that leave us, if we’ve experienced tons of traumatic stress over the course of our lives? Where does that leave us, if we’ve been stressed and over-taxed and put-upon in very intense ways over a long term? Chances are, it dopes us up with a pretty compelling case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, that modern version of “shell shock” or “combat fatigue” or “nervous exhaustion” that clouds our judgment and heightens our reactivity.
And the more it happens, well, the more it happens. If you get sucked into a cycle of intense trauma response often enough, your reactions become so sensitized that your experience doesn’t need to be extreme to trigger a heightened stress respose. I’m no neuroscientist, and I’m not a formally trained psychologist, but it’s my understanding that if you’re put through enough trauma over the course of your life, your body can get in the habit of switching on those stress hormones at a moment’s notice, just to get you through the day. You don’t even need to be in severe mortal danger, for the action to take effect. It can just look/feel/seem like severe mortal danger to the body, and the mechanisms that prevent disaster will spring into action.
That’s where PTSD really digs in and becomes more persistent, more pronounced, more likely to take over. Which cycles around to exacerbate not only its own instantaneous reactiveness, but also its after-effects. And they aren’t pretty. PTSD’s symptoms can include (in no particular order, and in a bunch of different combinations):
Re-experiencing the traumatic event
- Intrusive, upsetting memories of the event
- Flashbacks (acting or feeling like the event is happening again)
- Nightmares (either of the event or of other frightening things)
- Feelings of intense distress when reminded of the trauma
- Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, rapid breathing, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
Avoidance and emotional numbing
- Avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind you of the trauma
- Inability to remember important aspects of the trauma
- Loss of interest in activities and life in general
- Feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
- Sense of a limited future (you don’t expect to live a normal life span, get married, have a career)
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”)
- Feeling jumpy and easily startled
Other common symptoms
- Anger and irritability
- Guilt, shame, or self-blame
- Substance abuse
- Depression and hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts and feelings
- Feeling alienated and alone
- Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
- Headaches, stomach problems, chest pain
Which can all conspire to make you feel like you’re either losing your mind, or you’re not fit to live in the world, or everyone is out to get you, or you just can’t make it through the day, or all of the above. And more. I’ve had a pretty eventful life, myself, thanks at least in part to the after-effects of multiple traumatic brain injuries, so I’ve got my fair share of trauma in my past. And post-traumatic stress. And full-blown PTSD.
My brain’s biochemical reactivity has, in many cases, worked very much against me. And I freely admit that I haven’t done nearly enough tending of my parasympathetic nervous system to decompress and regain my balance on a regular basis. But where my brain has often worked against me in stressful times, it has also worked for me, thanks to stress. And the things that have worked for me are those handy endogenous opioids I talked about in my last section.
Remember, the biochemical/hormonal stress response in humans doesn’t care what the stimuli are that are freaking out the brain. All it knows is that it’s freaking out, and it needs to supply the right magic cocktail of hormonal juices, so that the taxed system can function adequately in the face of mortal danger. Even in the absence of lions and tigers and bears and horrific natural disasters, in our modern world, endogenous opioids kick in to numb us to our pain, suppress responses that would keep us from fleeing to safety, and keep us bright and alert on some level — and they can save our asses just as much as they did our Grendel-fleeing ancestors’. At least that’s my experience.
And this is not something we can necessarily stop, once it gets started. We are literally hard-wired to have these biochemicals kick into gear when we’re in danger, we’re uber-stressed, and when we’re in pain. Whether the stress is from a charging bear or an angry boss chewing us a new one in a performance review… whether we’re in danger of losing a limb or losing our job (and our house and our car and all the stuff we owe money on)… whether we’re in pain from lacerations to our legs or sleep-deprived, repetitive-stress-fried joint agony… our bodies are still sending signals via stress hormones (our messengers to/from the gods) and our instinctively hard-wired brains are going to get a shot of numbing sweetness that takes our mind off our ills and lets us live to see another day.
And so a heightened stress response becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a self-perpetuating loop of spontaneous over-reaction that not only jacks us up, but chills us out, as well. It’s like having an existential smoke — nicotine has the dual effect of first stimulating the system, then chilling it out (which is what makes it more addictive than heroin, I’ve been told). Getting that rush of adrenaline, feeling the mind clear, sensing the body coil and prepare to pounce or flee… and then getting that soothing rush of endorphins… It’s hard to beat that, when it comes to being fully functional.
And it does make me fully functional. In more ways than one. The net result of our inborn neuro-biochemical survival/support system is the heightened ability to respond to immediate threats, reduced pain experience, and clearer, more focused thinking. And when I am in a state of extreme agitation and sensitivity, the effect on me is like the effect of clicking the button on a morphine pump for someone who has recently come out of surgery.
Indeed, I have to say that the same survival mechanisms that let me haul my ass out of mortal danger, also enable me to function at a “normal”level in my day-to-day life. This is probably going to sound crazy to some people, even mentally ill to others, but there’s a logistical reason I find my ass in a sling, time and time again — an inborn, ingrained need, even dependency, on stress hormones to function adequately in the world, and actually feel like a normal person.
Putting myself in the direct line of danger — whether by cultivating friendships with people who are innately hostile towards me, seeking out work with employers whose environment seems custom-tailored to trashing my work-life balance, or taking on too much work at a time when my body is sorely in need of rest and rejuvenation — triggers that magic biochemical cascade of endogenous opioids, and suddenly everything is better. It’s not only BETTER, it’s just better. Normal. Regular. Boring. Standard-issue. Uneventful. Drab. Blah.
This probably sounds odd, but normal, uneventful, rote life is something I really need to work at. Whether due to my head injuries or just my nature, I seem to be hard-wired for excitement. And that tends to get in the way of living my life — especially around other people and when I’m at work. Plus, I have a raft of physical/sensory issues that really get in the way and keep me from getting on with it in a productive and steady way. I don’t need my experience to be over-the-top better, just normal. Just regular. Just standard-issue, run-of-the mill… the way everyone else’s life seems to be, and the way I wish my life were.
And analgesic stress lets me do just that.