by The Crisses
This article is always in tweak/development mode, but it's more advanced now than the podcast episode on the topic: Panic Reactions: 8 Important F-Words (012) New.
This article is analyzing appropriate reactions to panic-worthy situations (PWS), and will mention how we carry these panic reactions with us outside of the actual situation in itself.
What are Panic Reactions?
Life is full of panic-worthy situations. All living things have defensive measures they take when something adverse happens to them. Plants secrete resins, some animals have defensive poisons, some attack, some freeze, etc. Some plants and animals have defense mechanisms that are always engaged, such as thorns on bramble bushes to protect their berries, or chameleons blending in with the background. Others only react to a panic situation with a defense after the situation begins.
Not every situation elicits the same defense. Various species have developed a "menu" of reactions to choose from. A lion may attack or retreat. Animals may "play dead" when hurt or just as a result of a threat.
We (Crisses) have identified a minimum of 8 panic reactions. These are Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Follow, Fortify, Fabricate and Facilitate. The generally recognized ones are Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Follow. We have added 3 to the list, and there may well be others. We describe each of them below.
Usually the Fight/Flight and Freeze/Flop reactions are thought to be purely physiological responses where other responses (such as Fortify) are thought to be more complex not-purely-physical reactions. In a reductionist sense, perhaps Fortify is a modified Fight response. There has been some study, for example, of the Fawn response and they set it apart from the purely autonomic responses. One day they may change their mind about it. We think Fawn is a panic response affected by oxytocin. Time will tell what they think of this topic.
How do Panic Reactions happen?
Generally speaking we don't choose our reaction to a panic-worthy situation (PWS). These reactions are programmed into our subconscious and not really part of our frontal cortex. When our body (usually brain) becomes alerted to a PWS, it will engage a special range of chemical and hormonal reactions to them that changes our metabolism and primes our body and brain for certain sets of responses.
For an in-depth discussion of panic states please see the conference session on Better Spoons: Passion & Presence as a Daily Energy Source by The Crisses.
Training and desensitization can help people avoid this innate chemical reaction and maintain more control over their responses during a PWS (see the Facilitate reaction, below). So what is or is not a PWS may vary between individuals. A fire fighter is trained not to panic when there's a raging fire. They may still feel fear, but are still able to maintain choices and control their behavior in response to fire.
Where does anxiety, PTSD & C-PTSD come in?
Living in a state of panic outside of PWS is generally not healthy (it has physical repercussions and erodes healing and immune response), but there are times (PWS) when panic-reactions are fully warranted. Our body is attuned to these situations and panic reactions have saved lives and been recorded in our genome in some way. It has been shown in studies of animals that children will carry specific sensitivities to react to related PWS experienced by ancestors with them for several generations.
People living with PTSD and C-PTSD can carry panic states well past the timeframe of a specific PWS. When we have flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, it puts our body into the a state of readiness for panic reactions even when the situation doesn't warrant it. This state is sympathetic nervous system activation or what we call Panic Cycles.
What does ANS activation feel like in the body?
Subjective experiences of autonomic nervous system (ANS) panic reactions can vary from person to person. Panic reactions are characterized by intense fear or discomfort and can manifest in two main ways: hyperarousal and hypoarousal.
These feelings can vary in intensity. The Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale (SUDS) New page describes a 0-10 rating scale for ANS panic experiences.
Here are some examples of how panic reactions may feel in the body, generally dialed up to a 10:
Intense Hyperarousal (Fight or Flight Response) Examples
- Intense fear
- A sudden and overwhelming sense of fear or impending doom.
- Rapid heartbeat
- Heart palpitations or a pounding heart, often accompanied by a racing pulse.
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing or feeling as if you can't get enough air.
- Profuse sweating, often accompanied by clammy hands or a sweaty forehead.
- Trembling or shaking
- Involuntary shaking or trembling, sometimes affecting the whole body.
- Chest pain
- A sensation of pressure or tightness in the chest, which can be mistaken for a heart attack.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Feeling faint, unsteady, or as if you might pass out.
- Rapid breathing, sometimes leading to tingling or numbness in the hands and feet.
- Feeling of choking
- A sensation of a lump in the throat or difficulty swallowing.
- Inability to stay still, a strong urge to flee or escape the current situation.
Intense Hypoarousal (Freeze or Flop - Shutdown Response) Examples
- Numbness or detachment
- Feeling emotionally detached or disconnected from one's surroundings.
- Derealization or depersonalization
- Sensation that the world or oneself is not real or unfamiliar.
- Slowed heartbeat
- A decrease in heart rate, sometimes feeling like the heart is beating too slowly.
- Shallow breathing
- Breathing becomes shallow and constricted, as if not enough air is being taken in.
- Muscle tension
- Muscles may feel tense, tight, or rigid, as if preparing for danger.
- Feeling paralyzed
- Difficulty moving or feeling as if you are physically stuck in one place.
- Mental fog or confusion
- Difficulty thinking clearly, making decisions, or processing information.
- Emotional numbness
- Feeling emotionally blunted, unable to experience or express strong emotions.
- Sense of impending doom
- A vague, persistent feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
- Loss of appetite
- A decrease in hunger or lack of interest in food.
It's important to note that these are general descriptions of the most intense subjective experiences — individuals may experience a combination of symptoms, and various levels of intensity from 0 to the worst issues imaginable.
Panic reactions can be distressing. Understanding how panic feels in the body can help individuals recognize and manage their own reactions more effectively. This can also help professionals assess the distress level of their client.
These are the physical panic reactions, and there may be additional issues in the body such as flashbacks — see UNSAFE New for more about how the body may respond when panicked.
What determines which Panic Reaction we choose?
Each (plural system member or singular, animal, tree, vegetable, insect, reptile…) system is wired for some preferred defense mechanisms and panic reactions. The panic reactions are generally autonomic nervous system reactions, to a degree, and aren't selected consciously.
Panic Reactions and Plurality
One interesting thing about plurals is that we can cycle through more panic reactions than most singular folk do, as a general rule. So many plural systems try on various panic reactions to try to "solve" their current PWS. Many plurals have C-PTSD, which means that they go through routine or repeated PWS and get many opportunities to test out how different reactions go over and pick the one they believe results in the least trauma for the situation or relieves the most pain or damage.
Some plural systems have repetitive trauma experiences in several domains, locations, or scenarios, which can lead to a far more diverse system with several layers (polyfragmentation, with subsystems and/or groupings of headmates, potentially created around testing reactions to very different scenarios). The more erratic and varied the situations, the more reactions we may have tested in combination with triggers or situations/state dependent memory situations.
This makes more sense when you consider that plural systems have different brain activation "thumbprints" depending on who is fronting. We suspect that science will discover that plural fronts affect DNA activation as well (as seen in physiological changes between whom is fronting); it follows that different fronts will have different autonomic nervous system reactions to any given PWS, and thus a plural system probably reacts differently to each of a variety of PWS by way of activating (triggering) different system members to front depending on the situation.
It is possible that this inherent ability to access many panic reactions drives our having different identities (rather than the different identities driving our different reactions). It depends on how you view human development, and how foundational survival is to identity formation. Consider that since we have the ability to access these different reactions, it's possible our system has cycled through various reactions to repeated PWS to determine which reaction is most successful to avoid further trauma. When a reaction seems to work (ease suffering, shorten the length of a given PWS, or make that PWS cease to happen altogether), that reaction may be selected to be reinforced and kept "on hand" for future PWS.
Panic Reaction as a developmental lens
So at least for trauma-based plural systems, the Panic Reactions may be closely aligned to different types of residents. When you account for the myriad types of PWS and the 8 panic reaction possibilities, you can generate countless residents if you look at formation through a panic reaction lens. Folk with C-PTSD usually have been traumatized in many ways. For example we were traumatized at home, at our sitter's house, at school…and consider our childhood to have been "No safe refuge" — we had very few safe spaces. The resident who handled emotional abuse situations didn't handle physical abuse issues. Even if the panic reaction was the same, the PWS was different, so we ended up with more than one resident attuned to handle different situations in different ways.
This is a very trauma-forward developmental lens, and thus very limited. But as a temporary and limited lens, it still may help with understanding why stuck alters who are still cycling through their own panic reactions or stuck in specific panic reactions behave the way they do. We use it to help us gain more compassion for stuck folk and rebels, to see how their reaction may have helped or served the system at some point — versus how being stuck in that reaction or applying it to other situations may be unhelpful or dysfunctional in the Here & Now New.
The "8" Panic Reactions
Here are the 8 (9…10…wait! ack) panic reactions we have identified and an explanation of how they appear and what types of residents may be based off of them. The first 5 are recognized by psychology, if you dig into literature: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Tend & Befriend (Fawn & Follow respectively).
This is the classic "fight back" "fight or flight" panic reaction. It may include standing one's ground, defending boundaries, getting angry, being protective, being aggressive or defense only.
Many classically-labeled "protectors" are "fight" types though if you look at this whole list, you can see how everyone in the system is a protector of sorts.
System members who use the Follow panic reaction may also have a good measure of Fight panic reaction as well, so many system "rebels" may be fighters. This means once they're in the Here & Now, and onboard with system agreements they can be very effective protectors and do a great job of defending system boundaries.
This is the classic running away panic reaction. It does not have to be physical. It can include an individual system member retreating from a situation, and someone else fronting. It can also be part of a system member fleeing (dissociating from) the situation.
Flight can also be seen in any reaction where there are urges for constant movement such as pacing or driving, or an intense need to get out of a specific place. Some folk have to "keep busy" and use flight energy and busy-work to put off dealing with PWS.
Many of the folk in-system who are ill-equipped for confrontation or defense default to this panic reaction. Often when a protector is triggered front in a PWS, there may be a fronter who fled the situation.
This is a panic reaction that includes "playing dead", stopping in one's tracks, going catatonic or fetal position. It may also include partial sensory freeze reactions like mutism, going rigid, numbness, being unemotional or deadpan expressions, unresponsive.
This is sometimes seen in stuck traumaholders. In our case, someone even ended up with a name (Ice) based on the reaction.
"Fawn" is a reaction to take care of someone else. It's cited as a mixture of panic and oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
For example someone can play up to an abuser ("If I'm an asset, or a better person, then they'll ignore me." or "They're strong, maybe they will protect me as long as I can stay on their good side."). They become a caretaker for them in an attempt to placate them, win favor, and to be an asset to them so they won't target the headmate. This is also reflected in Stockholm Syndrome.
This also typically comes with taking care of external (or internal) children (the "Tend" of "Tend & Befriend"). Sometimes you double-down on taking care of the kids to buffer or protect them from traumatic impact.
This panic reaction can be a go-to for caretaker headmates.
A conformity or "gang member" mentality. Leverages "belongingness" to try to buddy up with the abuser.
"If you can't beat them, join them." This is a panic reaction derived from the idea that an abuser will not attack a mirror image of themself, that the abuser's instinct for "self-preservation" might extend to externals that closely resemble them. So the victim tries to be more like the abuser. It's a valid (like they all are) reaction to a dreadful situation. The victim likely doesn't realize that their behavior is likely to become abusive as a result, and on a subconscious level they're still protecting or serving the system. They usually don't recognize their own patterns of creating trauma.
When anxiety goes up, these headmates may double down into undesirable behaviors even when the abuser is no longer in play because they don't realize the abuser is gone (if they're stuck in the There & Then) or because this has become a part of their identity and personal panic reaction instincts. Easing up on creating more anxiety for these headmates (don't call them names, for example) can help them ease up on the undesirable behavior.
Follow is where "internalized abusers" come in. Abuser introjects, persecutors, and various other system "rebels" may come from this panic reaction.
Also commonly seen in tropes where a villain will have a protégé or underling that mimics them.
Build a bigger wall -- hard boundaries, could be internal. Could be walled off from the external world. This stands out from the Freeze reaction in that the person still has feelings, is still potentially aware of the Here & Now, they're just rock solid and hardened, or completely separated from the situation. They have impenetrable boundaries.
Headmates with this reaction may appear to be made of stone, robots, etc. Or they can appear in-system in hard walls, locking themselves in. Can be paired with the Facilitate reaction.
The fabricate reaction is taking any unrealistic view of the PWS. This can be redirection of blame (sometimes to oneself), remaining in denial that the situation is what it is, and any other form of lying to oneself about the severity or existence of a situation. "If I don't acknowledge it, it will go away."
This can also include retreating into fantasy worlds, lying to friends or family about the abuse, strong denial of the situation ("It wasn't really that bad." or "It's not the abuser's fault — I deserved it."), etc.
It creates a great deal of conflict internally when the people you rely on are untrustworthy, so sometimes it's easier to just rewrite reality than realize that you're dependent on abusive or neglectful assholes who are doing a lousy job.
Denier headmates, or some hosts will have a great deal of fabricate reaction to a variety of situations such as lost time, or unreliable family. Also many hosts may fall into denial when they get a diagnosis or someone else tells them about their headmates if they have no co-consciousness.
This reaction is "manage the situation" — often accompanied with emotional detachment, an attempt to stay anchored in what is real and not reacting to it emotionally, delegation, analysis of options, risk management, quick thinking, and putting off any processing or emotionality until after the crisis is over.
This is the reaction to a panic-worthy situation that may look the most "put together" during the situation but still can respond later with PTSD to the panic situation anyhow, and over-analysis of what the "right thing to do" was and guilt or other emotional processing issues that can be had by anyone after a panic-worthy situation subsides. folk with this panic reaction may have a very difficult time asking for help, sharing responsibility, delegating, and take on too much "handling stuff" to handle. "If you want it done right, do it yourself" doesn't know how to strike a good balance with interdependence and partnership.
Some folk have "manager" headmates who may be facilitators. Some protectors are really good at the facilitate reaction.
When you cave in to external pressure to conform or fit to someone else's expectations. This is the act of editing yourself to match who externals need you to be, or caving in when they foist their image of you on you and pressure you to match it. This creates something like an "extroject" — an internal format, mask, proto-person who may eventually become a headmate in themselves, but was initially formed by external expectations or needs for you& to conform to an external image of who you& ought to be. This is something like Fabricate at first, but the new reality you are creating is your own identity & personality.
- Flop or feint
- These could be part of Freeze — or probably were lumped in with freeze initially, but now are considered to be a different and involuntary autonomic system reaction. Rather than stiff, in this case one gets floppy, "fall to pieces" and is another form of playing dead.
- Someone who often tries misdirection from panic/pain/trauma by way of trying to make a joke out of everything. "The world is a joke anyway, why are you taking it so seriously?"
- "If I blend in and don't stand out, I won't be as likely to be targeted." Similar to follow or fitting but they’re a chameleon and mold to traits of people around them to blend in with the herd. So rather than trying to fit peoples expectations (fitting: “tell me who you want me to be”), they subconsciously take on traits, styles and habits etc of those around them to conform and hide in plain sight. Don't stand out; blend in. A form of copycatting. So for example someone with social anxiety issues might not actually have any particular religious faith intrinsic to oneself but act as a devout religious follower & even participate and volunteer in a religious community to "hide in plain sight."
- a form of passive-aggressive rationalization and rejection fairly advanced on the pathway to burnout. "If I can't fit in, if I get exhausted trying, if I feel excluded — why not just say 'fuck it' and walk away." Even though it may ultimately hurt, it hurts more to want it and to not get it, so they may as well stop wanting it. This is the grandchild of flight, but contains a lot of rationalized or reactive despondence — a form of giving up and walking away. In many cases of burnout, people quit their job suddenly, often will move or relocate, take up an entirely new profession, etc. Contrast this with the amnesiac version called dissociative fugue which has some similar features.
Panic-Reactions: Making Things Worse
We routinely caution plural systems against creating more PWS in their system by their own behavior, inside and out. When plurals bully, get angry, punish, name-call, abuse others, punish insiders, vilify or condemn people, etc. it may be interpreted as a panic-worthy situation by insiders and rebels, who then act out more.
Any situation that increases system-wide anxiety will increase individual system members' panic reactions. However, there are some behaviors that may resemble past trauma triggers and thus escalate anxiety or panic reactions rapidly to completely dysfunctional levels.
Such chain reactions can erode internal relationships quickly, escalate anxiety, cut internals off from being able to communicate with each other, and wreck system trust.
Hopefully this makes it clearer how even external cursing or name-calling, excluding headmates, jailing headmates, restricting their access to internal and external resources, punishing them, etc. can create bigger problems for your system.
Making things Better - How do you improve situations like this?
Having better in-system boundaries, and helping folk into the Here & Now New is generally recognized as the best solution for these types of issues. Boundaries between headmates, having an internal reparenting center (see Re-parenting) that has the ability to shield system kids and their caretakers from outside influence, restricting rebel access to front while they're non-cocon or emotionally distraught, finding better ways to handle adversity inside & out (you don't need to defend external boundaries in an aggressive or angry way), etc.
Another thing is being more compassionate and grateful for internals; if there were more compassion perhaps the situation would have gone down differently i.e. more understanding others' positions than taking what they're doing personally. Also, timing out folk while they're out of control is very different than punishing, restricting, or jailing them once they're calmed down.
Where to go from here
Once you understand your headmates in terms of the panic reactions that they may be exhibiting, you can build up more compassion and gratitude for stuck headmates (rebels, traumaholders, etc.) and perhaps work more on building up coconsciousness, or helping them get into the Here & Now New.
- Co-regulation New
- Codependence - filling emptiness inside with other people New
- Crash Course in Being Multiple for Authors and the Media New
- Emotional Regulation New
- Ice cream is NOT a right; it's a privilege
- Introduction for Singular Systems New
- Missing Persons: when you can't find a headmate, or they go deep
- Shame, Shame Spirals, Toxic Shame, Carried Shame New
- System Safety New
- The Rewind Technique New
- Trauma Work - what it is and how to do it New
- Understanding Memory Reconsolidation New