PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

Hi again!

In a nutshell, here’s what we’ve discussed so far: reflex learns as a result of your experiences; but reflex isn’t very smart, so what it learns as “predictors of danger” is a mixed bag of good predictors and random stuff that was going on at the time that the danger happened.

Today we’ll discuss why reflex doesn’t bother filtering good from bad predictors of danger before learning them: because reflex values speed over accuracy.

To illustrate, let’s revisit our old friend, Dave the zebra.

Dave and his zebra friends are out enjoying some delicious pasture.

(I know – last we saw Dave, he was avoiding pasture, because of what happened to George. But he got help for that, and now he’s doing much better. He says thanks for asking.)

Dave catches sight of something out of the corner of his eye that might be a furry tail, like the lion’s. But he only got a glimpse, and he’s not sure.

What should he do – raise the alarm, or try to get a better look?

On the one hand, he didn’t get a good look, it could be nothing, and those other zebras can be pretty snooty if he gets it wrong.

On the other hand, taking a closer look wastes precious seconds that could be better spent getting everyone to safety.

Folks – from the viewpoint of your survival reflex, the only thing that matters is survival. Your survival reflex assumes that it’s better to make a fool of yourself by overreacting, than to hesitate and waste a second.

So – reflex learns by the principle of “better safe than sorry”, and reacts by that same principle.

This will lead to a lot of situations where your survival reflex will be convinced that you’re in life-threatening danger, even though you’re not. It’s reacting to a reminder, even if that reminder doesn’t make any sense to your “thinking” brain.

We’ve discussed how you can have a reaction to a trigger even when you understand that there’s no real danger; we’ve covered how important it is to NOT beat yourself up over this, because it’s an injury and not a personal failing or character flaw.

What you can do instead is use this knowledge to help yourself regain a sense of calm: when you’re triggered, the reaction can make it feel like the danger is very real. So it becomes really important to understand that being triggered does not mean being in danger: you can be triggered when there’s no danger.

It helps to understand that your survival reflex sometimes acts like a kid pulling the fire alarm at school when there’s no fire, but because he doesn’t want to write the math test.

Use this knowledge: when you’re triggered, remind yourself of where you are, and what you’re doing. Remind yourself that you’re safe, and it’s just your survival reflex going off, pulling the fire alarm at a faint reminder of danger. Reminding yourself of where you are and that you’re safe is a way of grounding yourself – and knowing how to ground yourself is an important coping skill.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.


*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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6 thoughts on “PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 3: Reflex has values

  1. enjoyed reading your post addressing PTSD and the role of reflex. and found it quite helpful. And no you are not talking to yourself; although I do that abit, get some pretty wild answers… sorry, I should stay on topic.
    In my work as a fire safety specialist I deal with human fire behaviour. I realize the context here is PTSD, however, it raises questions for me in the fire protection field.
    In my books I have written that as humans we are task oriented. Accordingly, despite the fire alarm sounding, we just want to finish this…email, phone call, etc.
    Can you speak to this

  2. Hi Bruce!
    Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.
    For most of us, our survival reflex has never learned a fire alarm to be a predictor of danger – we’ve heard fire alarms go off because someone pulled it as a prank, or because of a fire drill, etc. Our survival reflex isn’t triggered by the sound, and instead we focus on what we’re trying to accomplish.

  3. Thanks, glad we are on the same page. I just wanted to ensure that I was not giving out incorrect information.
    We have been trying to teach people to pay more attention to fire alarms for the last 25 years.
    Alarm systems are improving and ‘Codes’ are requiring better maintainence programs. Accordingly, buildings are experiencing fewer false alarms. Training is becoming more of an issue and ‘fire alarms’ are not conducted within normal business hours and not without adequate notice/warning.

  4. Hi Again
    Still not alone. I was a medic and so my triggers are different than the infanteers I know but can you answer why each and every one I know with PTSD would go back into danger again in a heartbeat even knowing that survival may not happen. I know for years I jumped at very chance to deal with the dangers of my job and when doing it there was actually no survival instinct until the job was done and then the sweating and relief shaking started. Is this normal for those with PTSD? I wil admit that before I responded to the call there was always momentary apprehension which was always shrugged off with the mental status update that I know what to expect and how it will traumatize me so IF I go someone else will not have to go through the same thing I went through

    1. I too was a medic; actually a U.S. Navy Corpsman in the Fleet Marine Force. (VN) I would do it again as well. They only allowed Corpsmen to spend 7 months ‘in-country’. It was difficult rotating out to the ship and leaving my Marines. I think most people have more strength than they realize.

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