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Where are you? The three phases of stress response

Last Modified: April 14, 2020

Healthy Mind

Coronavirus stress

This post was written by Laura Oyer, PhD, HSPP, psychologist, Park Center, Parkview Behavioral Health Institute.

I feel like I’m on edge. I can’t shut off my mind. I can’t stop moving. I’m so irritable and grumpy. I keep snapping at the kids. I feel so paralyzed. I have no energy. I just don’t care anymore.

These are just a few of the phrases I’ve heard from clients, colleagues, friends and family over the past few weeks. It seems like almost everyone is either “on edge” or “numb” in this pandemic, and sometimes a little of both. It isn’t a coincidence that people are having similar reactions. Sure, the way they are expressing these feelings might be different, but the internal experiences are the same. They are moving through the three stages of stress.

Humans like to make sense of what’s going on inside ourselves and in the world around us. When we can put words to what we are experiencing, it helps us feel a little more in control. Even if we can’t change it, at least we have some sense of what’s going on. Because of this, I want to give you a framework to help make sense of what’s going on inside you and those around you, including your kids. This framework is called The Polyvagal Theory, and is about the different states we can be in, depending on how our autonomic nervous system is reacting to cues of safety or danger in our environment. To help visualize it, think of a ladder with three rungs.

Rung No. 1 – Safe and Social State

When we are in an environment where we are safe and our system is not detecting any cues of danger, we are at the top of the ladder. Here in safe and social, we generally:

  • Are creative, compassionate, and patient
  • Can breathe deeply
  • Have a regulated heart rate
  • Experience normal appetite and good digestion
  • Are sleeping well
  • Are organized and can follow through
  • Feel productive
  • Take time to play and enjoy
  • Can feel a variety of feelings but don’t get stuck with any one
  • Can tolerate and even enjoy being alone and with others
  • Can see the bigger picture
  • Describe ourselves as happy, content, interested and the world as safe, fun, and peaceful
Rung No. 2 – Fight or Flight

Whenever our system detects a threat (whether it’s real or imagined), we drop down the ladder to the middle rung. This danger doesn’t even have to be in our awareness, this can happen far below our consciousness, so we may find ourselves here but unsure why. This is when we are in fight or flight. Flight means we try to get away from or avoid the danger, and fight means we do something to try to defend ourselves from the threat. In this phase, we:

  • Are feeling anxious, angry, or rageful
  • Breathe short and shallow; maybe even having panic attacks
  • Are scanning our world for danger
  • Can’t focus well
  • Have health problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, headaches, chronic neck/shoulder/back tension
  • Have sleep difficulties 
  • Have a lot of energy and are constantly “on the move”
  • Have increased heart rate
  • Describe ourselves as anxious, angry, or rageful and the world is dangerous, chaotic, and unfriendly
Rung No. 3 – Shutdown/Collapse

As the path of last resort, if we are trapped or action taking doesn’t work, our nervous system takes us to the bottom of the ladder, into shutdown/collapse. We see this in animals when they “play dead”. The same nervous system pathway is activated for them as it is for us. When humans are in this phase, we may:

  • Feel alone and hopeless
  • Feel numb or a sense of not even being
  • Feel depressed or suicidal
  • Struggle with memory and concentration
  • Have little energy to do life tasks, like eating, cooking, cleaning
  • Feel like we are behind a plexiglass and disconnected, even if we are with others
  • Experience digestive problems, slowed metabolism, chronic fatigue, and sleep difficulties
  • Describe ourselves as hopeless, foggy, too tired to think or act and the world as empty, dead, and dark

Individuals who have a history of trauma, or what we often call complex or developmental trauma (many various traumas in childhood), their system has learned many cues of danger and few cues of safety, and they often find themselves down the ladder faster and more frequently than those without these histories. They may even find themselves stuck in the middle or bottom rung. Additionally, it’s important to note that some people can look like they are in the safe and social state from the outside, but on the inside, they are really in the shutdown/collapsed state.

Understanding the downward trajectory

Let’s look at an example to put this into perspective. Picture yourself out running errands on a nice day. You are feeling good, enjoying the weather, listening to music, talking with a friend on the phone. You are in a safe and social state. You hear about this virus called COVID-19, so you go home and start watching the news. You learn that it’s spreading quickly, shutting down countries and can be deadly (lots of danger cues). You drop down the ladder and are now in fight or flight state. You can’t flee from this, and you can’t really fight it. You are also asked to be home, maybe isolated, so there are few cues of safety (social or other) to help you move up the ladder back to safe and social.

You continue to watch the news, stay on social media and get cue after cue of danger. All the people around you also have nervous systems that are sounding their alarms and everyone is dropping down the ladder around you. Your nervous system continues to be amped up to help you fight or flight, but you can’t really do anything, besides buy food and toilet paper … lots of toilet paper. Because you are down the ladder, your kids’ nervous systems detect this (subconsciously) and now they are down the ladder, which keeps you down the ladder. Because of being in this state for so long without a break and few cues of safety, or because you or a loved one actually experience a threat to life, you may find yourself at the bottom of the ladder. Shutdown, depressed with no energy.

How to rise up the ladder

It’s not all doom and gloom. We can climb back up the ladder. It’s not always easy or fun, but our nervous systems are able to do it. In fact, they were created to do it! Sometimes, we just need to give them a little help. If you find yourself at the bottom of the ladder in shutdown/collapse, you have to go through fight or flight to get to the top, at safe and social.

A lot of clients I work with hate this part and even use various strategies to shut down the anxiety or anger they feel when this state starts, such as disordered eating, substance use, or other things that can help calm or numb. But I try to encourage them to hang in there and find ways to let the energy out. Things like walking, running (or even visualizing yourself walking or running), cleaning, writing, dancing, talking to a friend by phone or video, and listening to or playing music are just some things that can help us tolerate the fight or flight energy while keeping ourselves and others around us safe.

Once you are in the middle rung of the ladder, then you can try to get to the safe and social state. Every person is different, but think about the things that bring you comfort and feel safe and try to incorporate those into your life as best you can. Maybe consider things such as yoga, deep breathing, weighted blankets, slow bilateral movements (walking, drumming, rocking, tapping on your knees back and forth), looking at pictures of good memories, calling a friend, soothing music, singing, dancing, prayer, meditation, self-compassion, imagining your favorite place, such as a beach or mountain scene. The neat thing about our nervous system is that even when we imagine something, our system doesn’t know we aren’t really living it and it responds like it’s really happening. So even if you can’t get to the beach or mountains right now, or see your family, just taking a few moments and imagining it as if it’s really happening can trick our nervous system into being in a more safe and social state.

No matter what state you find yourself in, know that you are not alone and what your nervous system is doing is very adaptive given the current circumstances in our world. One of the best things that can help us climb the ladder is safe, human connection where we can get support to co-regulate our system. Even if you can’t get that in person right now, mental health professionals are still available to help you climb the ladder. So reach out and start climbing!

You can call the Parkview Behavioral Health Helpline at 260-471-9440 or 800-284-8439, anytime 24 hours a day, to talk to a healthcare professional about how and where to find support.



“A Beginner’s Guide to the Polyvagal Theory” Deb Dana, LCSW


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