Fight-or-flight. A response that’s meant to aid in survival in dangerous situations can actually become the baseline for those who have recently suffered a concussion. In fact, there are multiple downstream effects that can happen after a concussion — including an alternative to fight-or-flight, freeze. But did you know that a concussion can limit your ability to toggle between all three?
Traumatic brain injuries like concussions and post-concussion syndrome can create a seemingly endless cycle between periods of high anxiety, deep depression, and paralyzing dissociation. If you’ve been experiencing fluctuating mood swings or changes in your mental health after suffering a concussion, you’ll want to learn more about dysregulation in the fight-flight-freeze response.
First Things First, What is the Fight or Flight Response?
Fight, flight, and freeze are each varying nervous system responses in which we are calibrating or balancing different types of stressors. Before we get into ‘freeze,’ let’s talk about the responses we’re all most common with: fight and flight. Both are automatic physiological reactions to perceived threats that activate the sympathetic nervous system and trigger an acute stress response.
We’re often taught that ‘perceived threats’ and ‘stress’ must relate to emotional or environmental issues. On the contrary, there are several different types of stressors, including:
- Cellular-related stress, like Lyme disease
- Inflammatory-related stress, like a psoriasis flare-up
- Hormonal-related stress, like female hormonal imbalance
- Digestive-related stress, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Trauma response-related, like a traumatic brain injury (TBI)
- Toxicity-related stress, like mold exposure
As the nervous system calculates how much stress is present in the body, it doesn’t discern between different types of stressors — like what’s inflammatory versus what’s trauma-related — it considers the totality of all stressors. Once your stress load hits a certain point, your nervous system triggers your fight-or-flight response, creating an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and mood swings.
So, What Leads to a Freeze Response?
A fight response is your body’s way of approaching a perceived threat aggressively, whereas a flight response is your body’s attempt to flee any present stressors. In comparison, a freeze response renders your body unable to move or act against a threat, essentially shutting it down. So, why would your body opt to simply shut down rather than fight or flee from continuous stress?
The answer is all in the phrase ‘continuous stress.’ When your nervous system remains in a constant state of stress, it becomes overwhelmed metabolically. In other words, your body begins to run out of energy sources because it’s been stuck in a continuous fight-or-flight state. At this point, you may have a Dorsal Vagal Response or enter what’s known as the ‘freeze’ or ‘faint’ state.
A Dorsal Vagal Response refers to the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, the part of your brain that regulates internal functions like heart rate, respiratory rate, and digestion. We enter a Dorsal Vagal Response to save metabolic resources, but instead, experience fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, and become socially withdrawn while in the ‘freeze’ state. This state can trigger you to faint if it persists for too long, which is why ‘freeze’ and ‘faint’ responses are sometimes used interchangeably.
Can Concussions Cause a Fight-Flight-Freeze Cycle?
In the case of true danger, like a bear attack or car accident, it’s typical for the body to remain in fight-or-flight for 20 to 60 minutes — that’s how long it takes for the nervous system to return to its baseline. However, that might not be the case for those who have suffered a concussion. A concussion can take the shape of numerous stressors that impact a typical fight-or-flight response.
- Concussions can act as an inflammatory and metabolic stressor on the brain, which can bring on anxiety, insomnia, and cognitive problems.
- Concussions can act as a hormonal stressor in the body, which can interrupt neurotransmitter functions like serotonin and dopamine (mood regulators), acetylcholine (memory and muscle control), and melatonin (sleep regulator).
- Concussions can act as a trauma-response stressor on the brain, which can disrupt the ability to engage certain cranial networks (like the executive function network) to properly regulate emotions.
Underlying stressors and network dysfunction caused by a concussion commonly manifest as emotional and cognitive symptoms that create a cycle of fight, flight, and freeze. Many concussion victims find they experience a freeze response and become depressed or withdrawn, just to flip back into fight-or-flight and experience mental health concerns like anxiety and insomnia.
How Can We Stop the Post-Concussive Cycle?
Mental health symptoms after a concussion can persist for an indefinite amount of time — for some people, symptoms are transient and will resolve in a few weeks, whereas others experience symptoms for years. The goal of post-concussive treatment is to get the nervous system out of constant fight-flight-freeze and enter rest-and-digest, where the body can truly heal.
There are several means to stop the post-concussive cycle as it pertains to mental health; however, it’s imperative to get a glimpse at the brain, first. A quantified electroencephalography (qEEG) brain map visually captures how brain function has been disturbed by a concussion so that trauma can be properly addressed, the brain can receive proper care to recover, and the nervous system can rest.
From here, we can begin a protocol of neurofeedback, functional neurology approaches, and neuromodulation approaches to retrain both the brain and nervous system on how to function at a typical baseline and not under constant stress. Antidepressants and other medications may be recommended in the interim to take the edge off while we treat the underlying cause of symptoms.
Proven Success with Neurofeedback
Neurofeed-what? Neurofeedback is a brain reconditioning technique that ‘feeds back’ sensory information based on the performance of the brain in real time. We wouldn’t blame you if you weren’t familiar with neurofeedback, but trust us when we say this evidence-backed, clinically-supported type of reconditioning can help alleviate stubborn concussion symptoms.
Don’t believe us yet? Take a look at a few neurofeedback case studies and you be the judge:
- Neurofeedback alleviates 15-year depression symptoms. Read more.
- Neurofeedback reopens cranial networks after post-concussion syndrome. Read more.
- Neurofeedback reverses 11-year TBI-related depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Read more.
Stuck in fight-flight-freeze?
Does a traumatic head injury have you stuck in an endless cycle of fight, flight, and freeze? Seek guidance from the top-rated post-concussion rehabilitation clinic in Calgary.