When you are in a crisis or under stress, your body goes into survival mode. The pre-programmed automatic responses are hardwired in childhood. The only way to undo an automated response is through intense training like what the military, police, firefighters, and other trained first responders do.
When your body perceives the situation as stressful, your survival mode of the sympathetic nervous system takes over. This in contrast to the parasympathetic nervous system which induces a relaxed mode. These two systems make up the automatic nervous system.
When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, heart rate and blood pressure are accelerated, blood flow becomes centralized to equip the body for movement, the digestive system slows, adrenaline is released, and the brain becomes inhibited. The four possible responses in survival mode are fight, flight, freeze, or faint.
Fight: You start yelling at the driver who hit your car is a good example of this response. The automatic response is to go into attack mode and go after anyone who violates your equilibrium. Sometimes the response escalates into other abusive behavior such as hitting, throwing things, intimidating, making threatening remarks or asserting undue authority. Fighters try to feel better by taking charge of the situation.
Flight: You are running away or “fleeing” from the car accident you are in. Instead of engaging, you run away to avoid having to deal with the crisis. This response is often mistaken as a sign of “not caring”. But that is not the case. Fleer’s getaway to regroup and process what has happened.
Freeze: You can stay in your car and cannot speak although you are not injured. You are frozen from the event. Often when you freeze, you are unable to move, speak, or react. You have the “deer in the headlights” look. This sometimes escalates into a prolonged silence for days until you can regroup and speak again. For those on the receiving end, it can feel like they are being abandoned.
Faint: If after a car accident, you are complaining about feeling dizzy or wanting to pass out is a scenario that you have a faint response. When you are experiencing it, you feel like your body is completely drained, limp, and can’t hold itself up. If you do pass out, this can add to the trauma and even cause a head injury. The best thing to do is have a sit, breathe, and drink some water.
The problem is that when you are already exhausted, stressed out, or have another traumatic moment prior to the current response, your nervous system goes into overdrive. It takes anywhere from 36-72 hours for your body to recover from one sympathetic nervous system activation. Each new event restarts the clock. This means the executive functioning part of the brain remains shut down which greatly impairs judgment and decision-making abilities. If you are already struggling with decision fatigue due to an overload of necessary and unnecessary choices during the day, you are even more impaired.
Any stressful situation should be a good reminder to be extra careful when you are exhausted or when you are struggling from decision fatigue.