Where PTSD comes from, Part 3: How Reflex Messes with Your Thinking

Hi there!

Today we’re going to round out our discussion of what survival reflex does, by going over how it impacts our thinking.

Keep in mind that survival reflex is designed to save our life under circumstances of immediate threat. In those conditions, every moment counts, and every ounce of your energy could make the difference.

We discussed here how your reflex works differently (and much faster) than your usual, everyday thinking; and more recently, here, we talked about how reflex is run by a different part of your brain than conscious thinking. We’ve also covered how, to save energy, the body will interrupt day-to-day functions like the digestive system and the immune system, so it can redirect all available energy toward immediate survival.

When survival mode kicks in, your reflex takes energy away from the part of your brain that’s responsible for complex thinking. It redirects this energy toward your big muscle groups, to make it easier for you to fight or run. So – in the case of Dave the Zebra beating the daylights out of that lion, his survival reflex interferes with his ability to do stuff like: analyze things, think things through, look at a situation from a number of different perspectives, prioritize, look at the big picture, and so on.  And reflex does this on purpose – because complex thinking takes up time and energy, neither of which can be spared in a life-threatening emergency situation.

What your survival reflex does instead is put you on high alert, on the lookout for danger. What that means is, Dave’s attention is constantly darting around looking at everything – paying attention to every sight, every sound, evaluating everything in front of him to see whether it’s a possible threat.

If you’re in danger, taking too much time to look/listen to one thing in specific could lead you to miss a potential threat somewhere else in your environment; so, in an effort to identify a threat and save your life, your survival reflex interferes with your ability to concentrate and sustain attention on any one thing for very long. Once a threat is identified, reflex makes you go into a sort of “tunnel vision”, where all of your energy goes toward just dealing with that lion, and nothing else. Often, in highly dangerous circumstances, you tend to flip back and forth between the tunnel vision and the darting around looking for other sources of danger.

This reflex is designed to work in brief bursts, and to maximize your chances of survival in life-threatening circumstances. Your military training strengthens the “fight” part of the fight/flight/freeze response, and builds on it to help you get through some nasty situations.

In PTSD, this reflex gets stuck in a constant loop, so it’s hard to shut it off.

In learning to control it, step #1 is getting a really good understanding of it.  Once you know how it works, it gets easier to work against it.


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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