Please Note: The ideas contained in this FAQ are the opinions of the writer and are communicated without reference to supporting documentation in most cases. Other inspiration and influence for the writing came through consultation with other mental health professionals but the writer “Peter Quintano” is also fully qualified in DBT making him qualified to talk about the things discussed in this article.
I write this blog entry as I contemplate the severe lack of mental wellness in my family tree. I know very well that mental health goes wrong for a variety of reasons (nature vs nurture) and that these reasons are not yet well understood, discussed, or integrated into the general understanding of society so that serious (but unnecessary) problems can be prevented. I know that because this is still the case, people fall through the cracks of non-understanding and lack of treatment every day, and many times end up losing their lives. I believe this will continue being the case until the general understanding of how all this happens shifts dramatically.
The one aspect of mental health that I want to focus on here and now is something that everyone can understand. Perhaps you have noticed from the title of the article that I am going to focus on “fear” as it is so often experienced, used, and abused in a cultural context. Whether we realise it or not, especially in modern industrialized cultural settings, we play on the fear emotion as a way to teach children, maintain law and order, and get results in the workplace and elsewhere. I believe we play on the fear emotion because it seems to work so well (at least in the short-term) to get people to do things… to be obedient.
The psychological understanding that is very important to get across in this regard, however, is that every time we use “fear” as a way to get results with people, we are activating the fight, flight, freeze response in the brain and nervous system. The fight, flight and freeze response is a chemical chain reaction that mobilizes the body for responding to threats and ensuring survival. It works very well for what it was meant for, like making sure all energy and resources are directed towards body parts essential for movement and escape! It was designed for limited use, meaning only for real threats.
When the fight, flight freeze response is activated repeatedly and unnecessarily (especially in childhood development) we then set the conditions for the body to remain in this mode of functioning indefinitely. In other words, a human starts assuming he is “always in danger” when those in authority over him are repeatedly suggesting he is in danger, even when he isn’t. Parents, unfortunately, do this a lot to their children because of time pressures, fears of losing money, and lack of capacity, knowledge, and willingness to teach children about emotions and emotion regulation.
The chemical chain reaction that takes place in fight, flight and freeze response – in the long run – ends up being harmful to the brain, nervous system, and body when it is activated over and over unnecessarily. In particular, the over-release of the stress hormone cortisol happens during the unnecessary fight, flight and freeze activations. The harm from over-activation of flight, flight, freeze (over-release of cortisol) can take many forms, including various body and mental disorders. One of the more serious mental disorders that can result from this overactivation of the fight, flight, freeze response is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).
When a human is born more emotionally sensitive (having specific genetics) into a culture that seems to “have a thing” for over-activating the fight, flight, freeze response to gain obedience, this means that certain types of individuals are going to be more prone to developing disorders like BPD. In my experience being raised in a Western industrialized culture, right from the start, I was oriented to “the fact” that danger is always waiting for me right around the corner if I am not willing to submit to the dictates of authority (school, law, bank, government, church, etc.).
These notions of fear were communicated to me (both directly and indirectly) on so many occasions that it was eventually ingrained as “truth.” Regular activation of my fight, flight, freeze response, therefore, became an everyday experience, so much so that it became my way of being in the world and solving problems (or more accurately, failing to solve problems very well, especially emotional/relational problems).
Now imagine trying to grow up, and function in ever more complex life situations when fight, flight, freeze is your dominant mode of being. It is tough to function in complex life situations when flight, flight, freeze is getting activated unnecessarily (hard to think clearly, hard to speak clearly, make wise decisions). It is likewise tough to function when you have figured out that “the way you are” often results in functioning errors and upset from others. Attempts at hiding and repressing these fight, flight, freeze responses from others, therefore it also tends to happen a lot, but unfortunately increases the odds of over-activation of fight, flight, freeze in the future.
So perhaps you can see why people would frequently be requesting that someone in this fight, flight, freeze-over-activation predicament “calm down” when it doesn’t make sense to be so anxious or emotional?
Learning how to settle down the irrational fears in BPD is one of the hardest challenges to consistently follow through with, especially when society in general and the people around you remain as they are and tend to remind you of your functioning predicament. Another related and ever-present BPD challenge is to determine when you are safe and when you are not safe. It is what it is to face these challenges day in and day out, and it is difficult.
It can help a person with BPD to find self-acceptance and to persevere through daily perceptual and emotional challenges to realize the extent of unintentional abuse of the fight, flight, freeze response that has stemmed from being raised in a fear-based culture.
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