Understanding your brain to understand your mind

Understanding your brain to understand your mind

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In-Mentis Integrative Psychology explains how our brains deal with certain unconscious reactions and how you can work on them.

Things happen to all of us every day, but the way we respond to them depends on a lot of different things. In our normal lives, we are in a calm state or in an active state. We are relaxed (laying down watching a film or reading a book) or ready to act and do things (cooking or working). But there are actions, events, movements, noises, places and / or images that can put us in an alert mode. These signals can be interpreted by our nervous system as a danger, a threat to our lives.

Three unconscious reactions

Steven Porges developed the Polyvagal Theory, which explains these unconscious reactions. We cannot control them, and we cannot rationalise them.

1. Flight or fight

This would be the first reaction to a danger or a threat. You find yourself fighting against a situation or a person or you can flee.

Your muscles get tense, your breath and heartbeat become faster, you start sweating and your mouth becomes dry, your hands and feet are cold. Your digestion stops as all of your blood flow goes to the muscles to get ready to fight or flight. You feel rage or fear, and you are not in a position where you can listen to someone, nor can you see how you are behaving or talking / shouting.

You may not have access to your prefrontal cortex, so you cannot be rational; you cannot think about consequences, you cannot control yourself.

2. Hyper freeze

This is the second step of a reaction to a threat. The danger is higher, and you find yourself in a position where you cannot go into fight or flight mode. This is an unconscious evaluation; it is your nervous system that takes this decision.

When you are in this state, your muscles become rigid, frozen, and you start to hyperventilate, your heart goes so fast that you have tachycardia, your sweat is cold and your mouth dry. Your hands and feet are extremely cold or hot. Your bowel or bladder may evacuate, sometimes without even noticing it. You feel terror and may even dissociate yourself. You are disconnected from yourself and your surroundings.

Your prefrontal cortex is likely inaccessible, so you cannot make any decision to move on from that situation. You cannot think about any solution or anything you can do, not even moving.

3. Hypo freeze

Facing the most threatening event to your life, you may have a hypo freeze response of your nervous system. This is so overwhelming that you are preparing yourself for death. You give up.

Your muscles get flaccid, your breath is very shallow and your heart beats very slow. You have cold sweat, dry mouth and cold hands and feet. You don´t feel anything, you are dissociated, there is a disconnection between body and brain and your emotions don’t get to your brain. It is impossible to connect with yourself or your surroundings, or the people around you.

Your frontal cortex is inaccessible, which means no rational state, no ability to think.

It’s personal

There are a lot of situations where we can find ourselves in one of these states, but these situations are completely personal. The same situation can result in the nervous system of one person reacting with a hyper freeze response, and in another person with a flight or fight response, or even an active normal response. This is going to depend on a lot of factors. One of them is the social support we have before the traumatic event occurs and in the moment that it happens.

We all think that something has to have happened to develop a trauma. But trauma can also be something that didn't happen and should have happened (like support, understanding, protection). This is the reason why Dr. Gabor Maté says “Trauma is not what happens to you, but what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you."

Professional therapy can help

The first thing we have to do is to detect which situations make us experience these unconscious reactions and then try to avoid them as soon as possible. This is something best done through professional therapy. Most of the time, CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is not enough and EMDR and mindfulness are also needed.

If you have experienced any of these responses and want to work on them, you can contact In-Mentis Integrative Psychology. They are here to help!

Elsa González Lueje


Elsa González Lueje

Elsa is a Spanish Health Psychologist that works from a CBT, EMDR and Systemic perspective. Specialized in Autism, Eating Disorders and Obesity, Family Therapy and Trauma. She has lived in...

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