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Perceiving Danger, Knowing Safety - the 5 Stages of the Threat Response

This is a light-hearted and personal example of the stages our nervous system goes through when it is alerted to possible danger.

This morning I was running through the trail close to my house and feeling amazing. The weather was beautiful for this time of year on the west coast of B.C., there was no rain and there was a cloak of mist in the trees, reminiscent of an Emily Carr painting. I was listening to Andra Day when I heard a loud guttural noise behind me. Instantly, I was on alert. My eyes widened, I turned the music off so I could hear better, I felt a freeze all up my back and my stomach clenched. I came to a stop. I scanned the trees on either side of me and the path behind me. What was that strange noise? About fifty feet behind me, was a man, and the noise he made, although loud, was just him clearing his throat as he ran. He ran past me and my system began to settle. It settled as it realized there was no danger. The man didn’t intend me harm and anyway there were plenty of people close by on the trail if I should need them. As I relaxed, I noticed the mist again, heard the birds, turned my music back on and continued down the trail able to continue with my run. The whole up regulation and down regulation in my nervous system happened in a matter of seconds.

This is an example of what Peter Levine calls the threat response. It is a series of steps our nervous system goes through when there is a perceived threat. Our nervous system’s job is to keep us safe and once it has done this job, ideally it returns to calm alert. Sometimes my clients will judge themselves for reacting like I did to a noise in the woods, but reacting is healthy, where it becomes a problem is when the system can't settle again after and it still feels as though it's in danger. When there has been trauma this threat response can get stuck and our physiology continues to act as though we are in danger. Because our physiology still feels disrupted, we keep looking for a threat and the cycle continues.

The 5 steps in the threat response are:

1. Arrest/Startle. Our nervous system takes in that something new is in our environment. It might be a sound or something we see or feel. In my case this morning, it was the guttural sound. In my defense, it was a very loud and strange sound! The nervous system responds with some sympathetic arousal. My eyes naturally widened to take in more, my ears strained for sounds, my muscles contracted, and my breath halted for a moment. This is a healthy response to what could possibly be something that may need action.

2. Defensive orienting. We begin to look around for the source of the threat. Sympathetic arousal continues to increase. I stopped the music and began to look around for what had made the noise. Our five senses heighten during defensive orienting. My eyes were moving quickly to take in as much of the environment as possible. My hearing was alert. My breath was fast, and my muscles were still contracted waiting for a cue of what action to take next.

3. Specific Self-Protective Response. We quickly take in what we need to do to survive: fight, flee, freeze, submit or turn to others for support. In the case of fight or flight sympathetic arousal continues to increase to prepare for the energy will need to defend or run. If our nervous system deems that it’s impossible to get away or our efforts are unsuccessful, we are overwhelmed by the parasympathetic dorsal freeze response. In my case, I didn’t need to fight, run or freeze.

4. Completion. Our system takes in that we are no longer in danger (or in this case never was in danger) and our nervous system balances out again. I could feel this happen as my muscles relaxed, my breath slowed down, my eyes relaxed and I could take in more of the landscape and I noticed the sounds of birds again.

5. Integration. We take in anything about the situation that could help us next time. Our curiosity returns, and we can reflect on our experience.

These whole 5 steps were completed in a matter of seconds, as soon as I knew what the noise was, I was able to settle, but this isn’t always the case. When there is trauma that hasn’t yet been worked through, we might find ourselves stuck on any one of those steps and not be able to return to balance. We might stay stuck in the startle response, or in defense orienting, even when we aren’t in any danger, we can continue to feel like the threat is still there, leaving us feeling anxious and exhausted. We might have a difficult time differentiating between what is safe and what is dangerous. If you find yourself stuck please be compassionate with yourself and know that it is possible to shift. In Somatic Therapy we practice creating awareness of these steps and what they feel like in our bodies so that we can complete the cycle and not stay stuck. Please click on the link if you'd like to read more about Shifting Out of Freeze

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