The Stress/Threat Response Cycle

The key word here is cycle. When faced with a threat or stress, the body responds by mobilizing energy to deal with that stress or threat. This is the activation phase. Then, when the event is over, a similar response occurs, but in reverse.  This is the deactivation phase. Letting the energy generated to meet the stress/threat back out of the body and re-establishing a kind of equilibrium: a state of relaxed alertness. Activation without deactivation is an incomplete cycle, and can leave a lot of energy stuck in the body, creating symptoms and discomfort, including trauma.


If only life and dealing with stress were that simple though, right? So many activations of our stress response, so few opportunities to complete them and re-regulate.

When a nervous system experiences a stress or threat we have three basic ways to respond. The first would be to flee/run or otherwise escape – best chance of survival. If that’s not possible, the fight response comes online. If/when those are not viable options, we freeze, or go into a kind of ‘immobility’ state. It’s what made the opossum famous – ‘playing dead’. (*Important side note here – this “choosing” is done for us by our nervous system, it is not a conscious decision and happens in microseconds)

Fight and flight are designed to be successful, and the freeze, or immobility state is meant to be short term, and temporary. However when things don’t go as the nervous system intended, it can create lingering effects of those states for months, or even years.

When the energy of activation stays stuck in the body, it will persist in trying to do it’s job – attempting completion of the activation/deactivation cycle. This is what creates symptoms such as chronic muscle tension, a slightly elevated heart rate all the time, shallow breathing, scattered thinking – basically shadows of our threat response that are going off chronically and taking a lot of energy to do so.

Symptoms can range from being irritating, to exhausting, to utterly miserable. And, the more they’re focused on, the worse they can become. What they’re really needing is support. What a suffering nervous system needs is relief. What could be more relieving in a crisis than for it to be over? For the threat to be gone. For the danger to have passed – and to know you’re safe. To know everything is OK – to know that you’re OK.