The Biological Response to Stress: Trauma and the Body

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog" by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the biological response to stress? How does the body respond to trauma?

The biological response to stress can look like either hyperarousal or dissociation, both of which overpower higher-level brain functions like abstract thinking and impulse control. Knowing how your body responds to stress can help you understand and take care of yourself better.

Continue reading to learn more about biological responses to stress.

The Stress Response

Understanding the biological response to stress in the body is essential to understanding the effects of traumatic experiences. The most primitive parts of our brain control the stress response, which is a physiological reaction that allows us to respond to threats in our environment. There are two types of stress responses: hyperarousal and dissociation. 

Hyperarousal prepares the body to flee or fight a threat by flooding it with chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline. Dissociation prepares the body to endure physical harm by slowing its major functions and releasing natural opioids to numb pain. Both of these responses also shut down higher-level brain functions, like abstract thinking and impulse control, in favor of functions that are likely to help us survive the current threat. 

This is why traumatized children often struggle with focus: Their brains are constantly on the lookout for threats, which means they’re paying close attention to things like people’s tone of voice and demeanor (which can signal that someone’s about to try to hurt them) and can’t pay attention to other things like classroom lessons or lectures about their behavior.

Unpacking the Complexity of the Stress Response

There are different theories on the stress response and how it can manifest. Hyperarousal and hypoarousal (the dissociative response) are often broken down into more specific types of responses (often beginning with the letter “F”), and these subtypes help us understand the many forms the stress response can take and recognize the behaviors that accompany them. 

The fight and flight responses are commonly known types of hyperarousal stress response, but other theories describe additional types such as the freeze response. This is when the body becomes immobilized in response to a threat. Some identify the freeze response as hyperarousal, others as hypoarousal, and still others as a combination of the two

The flop response looks similar to the freeze response, except that the body goes limp, faints, or is overwhelmed with fatigue (as opposed to freezing, where the body stops moving but remains tense). Flopping is thought to be a type of hypoarousal. There are two additional “F”s: feign (or fawn) and flood. Feigning is when someone tries to please or appease the source of the threat (such as an abuser or attacker), often by pretending to befriend them. And flooding is when someone is flooded with emotions in response to a threat.

Exercising the Stress Response

The stress response is like a muscle: When we’re born, we already have the neural capacity to experience the stress response—and over time, we can exercise it gently and in moderation to make it stronger and more regulated, equipping us to handle challenges. However, when our environment activates the stress response too frequently or to an unmanageable degree, it can result in serious psychiatric harm with long-term consequences. When your stress response is repeatedly activated, you can become sensitized to stressors, meaning it takes less and less of a perceived threat to induce a full stress response.

(Shortform note: Just like there’s a certain range of weight you can safely lift depending on your muscle strength, there’s a certain range of stress your brain can cope with before it becomes overwhelmed. This is known as the window of tolerance. Everyone’s window of tolerance is different, and it can vary depending on factors such as physical and mental state, previous experiences with trauma, and social support. Operating outside the window of tolerance leads to hyperarousal or hypoarousal, which directly impacts brain functioning. This can further impair a traumatized child’s ability to focus or function in a school setting, as energy is directed away from the brain areas used for higher-level thinking and toward areas used for survival.)

The Biological Response to Stress: Trauma and the Body

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Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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