When threats to your survival are encountered, the survival responses that follow increase the chances that you will survive…these responses are helpful and positive
When the threat has passed, to help you avoid these threats in the future, your body may find ways remind you of these threats to your survival. If your survival was threatened when a fox attacked you, seeing a fox in the zoo, or on television or in a picture might bring back the same feelings and thoughts and the way your body felt when you were really attacked by the fox. Your body does this to protect you and is trying to help you and keep you safe. However, rather than help you, your body’s reminders of previous threat can often become disturbing and a problem in and of themselves. For example, because dogs are similar in many ways to a fox, any exposure to a dog might begin to remind you of the fox attack. Since dogs are a prevalent part of our environment and most dogs are not dangerous, this would be a problem for you because every time you saw a dog, your body would be responding as if it were being attacked by a fox. To avoid this response, you might refuse to leave your house or dramatically change the way you live your life. Although your body was trying to increase your chances of survival by associating dogs and foxes, this response becomes a great problem.
Sometimes memories of events in the past that were dangerous or painful can become stuck so that we think of them all the time. When we have these types of memories, our bodies also have the same feelings and thoughts as when we were in the dangerous or painful situation. For example, if you were attacked by a fox, you might have a “flashback” of this attack many times a day. When this happens, your body thinks it is still being attacked so it continues to respond in the way it did when you were attacked. Your heart beats faster, your muscles are stronger, your blood pressure goes up, you pay attention to everything around you to protect yourself, and you don’t feel safe. Rather than protecting you, the systems in your body which have been designed to help you respond to threats to your survival is now causing you problems. When this happens, you will have problems sleeping, concentrating, learning, enjoying life and wanting to be close to your loved ones. You may get angry very easily and drink too much. It is as if the switch that turns on the way your body responds to threats to your survival and to danger is turned on and won’t turn off as it is supposed to do.
When a threat to your survival is in the past but your body continues to respond as if the threat continues to be in the present, it is as if the switch that controls your survival response is stuck in the “on” position.
Survival responses are designed to remain “on” until the threat to survival is over. This can be for a few minutes or days, weeks and even months. These survival responses are positive and protective. Soldiers assigned to combat zones experience these types of reactions. Because attacks can occur day or night, this survival response alters sleep patterns so that threats are recognized and can be responded to quickly. Anger can increase a soldier’s strength and motivate him or her to attack an enemy. The shutting down of laughter and humor is also protective because laughter relaxes the blood vessels making one less alert to danger. The shutting down of positive emotions also focuses the attention to the threat at hand and the interference that these emotions might bring. Hyper-vigilance helps the soldier to respond to the enemy and other threats. Hitting the ground in response to the noise of a bomb or missile is protective and life-saving. The survival responses of the soldier’s body increase their ability to respond to the constant threats to survival. Given that these survival response have been “on” for such long periods to threats that were real and constant, when the soldier returns home they often do not turn off. These responses become a problem when there is no threat.