The Fight-or-Flight Response

Written by EE Publisher

June 17, 2017

Trauma-informed Teaching | Blog

Trauma-Informed Teaching: Defining Trauma

To understand trauma-informed teaching, it is crucial to first learn the flight or fight response. Many educators now recognize the importance of trauma-informed teaching practices, what is trauma? 
  • An event, or series of events, that overwhelms the central nervous system.
  • When one’s ability to defend, protect, or say no is overwhelmed.
  • What occurs when an individual's solution (active response to threat) does not work.
This definition requires an understanding of the central nervous system. This article will cover the basics of the nervous system and the fight-or-flight response. We will then offer an explanation of how trauma manifests in the classroom.
Mindfulness impacts the wizard brain and the lizard brain

The Autonomic Nervous System

The threat-response system is controlled by a branch of the nervous system known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS handles all our basic automatic functions like digestion, heart rate, breathing, and our body’s response to stress. The ANS can be further divided into the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is known as the “fight-or-flight” response and the PNS is referred to as our “rest and digest” system.

The Fight-Flight-Or-Freeze Response

It is important here to think of the most primitive of all survival situations: predator and prey. A zebra at rest with no threat of predators and will be operating within the “rest and digest” functions of the PNS. That same zebra when chased by a lion will immediately experience drastic physiological changes. The zebra's heart rate increases, large amounts of stress hormones are released, and blood pressure increases - the zebra’s nervous system prepares it to run for its life.
This fight-or-flight response is the zebra’s active response to threat (solution). As long as the zebra can continue to run or fight back, its SNS will remain active. As soon as the zebra is caught a different nervous system reaction occurs - the “freeze” part of the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response. In the case of being caught by a lion, the zebra’s nervous system has been overwhelmed and has no further solution to offer. This overwhelming point is what we would consider trauma - the active response to threat did not work.

Past, Present, & Future: The Role of the Pre-Frontal Cortex

The example of a zebra is useful because the ANS is common to all mammals - including humans. When a human nervous system reaches the point of overwhelm it results in a state of collapse and dissociation. The biggest difference between the human brain and the zebra brain is the pre-frontal cortex. In other words, zebras (and other mammals) do not experience post-traumatic stress disorder in the same way we do because their nervous system is responding to cues in the present moment. A zebra that survives a traumatic encounter will quite literally “shake it off” and return to a resting nervous system state once they are safe from harm.
A human who has been through something traumatic tends to mentally replay the scenario. This mental replay can actually activate the SNS in exactly the same way that a real threat would. Thus, unresolved trauma tends to live in the nervous system, cycling a person through states of high SNS resulting in a chronic stress state.

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Trauma In the Classroom

In the classroom, we often see trauma present as students with extreme emotional reactions including:
  • explosive rage
  • hyperactivity & attention deficits
  • impulsive behavior
  • intense anxiety & fear
Or, on the flip side, we may see it manifest as:
  • extreme sensitivity & sadness
  • withdrawal
  • lethargy & chronic fatigue (falling asleep at inappropriate moments)
  • slowed motor movements
  • frequent and often inexplicable physical symptoms (stomach aches, headaches, etc.)
Teachers and parents are often perplexed by temper tantrums that seem out of proportion to the actual event. It is important to remember that children who have experienced traumatic events are not responding to events in the present moment. Instead, their stress response system lives in a state of hyperarousal as a result of past experiences and is triggered into a fight-or-flight response.
When the fight-or-flight response is active the most helpful action we can take is to maintain our own calm and provide resources and solutions. In other words - we cannot expect to engage a student in logic, reason, or consequences while they are in a fight-or-flight state. Simply understanding that students are incapable of reason while escalated can shift your perspective and responses

Get The Full Lesson

Empowering Education offers full lesson plans for teachers on teaching kids how to pay attention to what is happen in their body when they feel difficult emotions. 


Nuances of Trauma

In summary, our expanded definition of trauma now includes a number of important nuances:

  • Trauma occurs when one’s solution (active response to threat) does not work (The nervous system has been overwhelmed).
  • Trauma can result from real or perceived threats (Nervous system activation is the same for real and imagined threats).
  • Trauma is subjective and relative (what I perceive as overwhelming, or my capacity for a solution, may be different than what you perceive as overwhelming).
  • Trauma creates a disconnect between the mind and the body. (Healing occurs when you can feel safe in your body, in the present moment - a resting nervous system state).

The next post in this series will explore the role of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE's) as they relate to long-term health outcomes and immediate impacts in the classroom.

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