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PTSD: From Fight to Flow

Lessons from Will Smith and Chris Rock.

Key points

  • The brain chooses fight, flight, freeze, or flow when a threat is perceived.
  • Will Smith was stuck in fight mode when he felt threatened by Chris Rock's joke.
  • PTSD survivors can choose self-care routines that lead to healing which empowers the brain to be in flow instead of fight, flight, or freeze.

There's no doubt Will Smith was triggered at the Oscars Sunday night. The world watched as he walked on stage — clearly in fight mode — and slapped Chris Rock for joking about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith's bald head.

Like seven million other Americans and me, Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss.

Anyone who chooses assault over communication is in survival mode because fight mode is the most basic survival mode your brain employs.

Now tongues are wagging, and tweets are flying around the world, making snap judgments about which star holds the moral high ground in this Oscars debacle. Instead of further polarizing people, let me ask key questions about Will Smith's choice to fight when he was triggered. Hopefully, this can shed light on what you can learn from the story to build practices that will allow you to avoid fight mode in favor of flow mode, the state your brain chooses when you successfully start to heal from PTSD or other mental injuries.

Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Flow

When faced with a stimulus, your brain’s most basic decision is binary: does this bring safety or danger? This initial perception activates your nervous system’s response. Whether you have PTSD or not, your nervous system will choose for you: fight, flight, freeze, or flow.

Let's unpack these choices your nervous system makes for you.

Lesson One: Fight

There's an old saying in 12-step programs, "You don't have to attend every fight you're invited to." I love this saying because it illustrates well what goes on in your brain when someone “bucks up on you,” as they say in my native Kentucky, where I brought the neighborhood pedophile to justice when I was 18 years old.

I am open about the complex PTSD I experience as a result of that trauma, and I write about it to share with others how I've come to heal my mental injury. Will Smith also writes openly in his book about his PTSD experiences as a young boy unable to protect his mother from physical beatings. He, like me, felt out of control in an overwhelming situation — and those childhood perceptions shaped the adult brains of Will Smith, myself, and anyone with PTSD.

When an unhealed PTSD brain gets triggered by circumstances that remind it of past abuse, choices to flow rather than fight/flight/freeze becomes challenging. So when Jada’s appearance was mocked, Will Smith's brain made a series of perceptions that led to a fight response.

The PTSD trigger could have entered his brain when Chris Rock made the joke. Will first laughed at the joke — and then looked to his wife for her reaction, seeing her roll her eyes. Shortly after, Smith walked up on stage, slapped Rock, and then sat back down, loudly and explicitly instructing him to never speak of Jada in a comedy routine again.

You can see clearly in this example how the brain receives words and external stimuli based on past experiences to make a choice to fight — to fend off threats perceived as real and threatening. Even if the logical part of the brain is saying, "Stop, this doesn't make sense in civilized society," the reptilian part of the brain, focused on survival, chooses to fight. In Will Smith's case, the cameras were rolling.

People who experience overwhelming situations such as abuse, war, or trauma may develop PTSD, even if their brains and bodies were healthy before the incident. Think of PTSD as a scar on the brain or an injury. When you fall in the shower (like I did last month), your leg and arm may be sore and injured for a while. (My knee still kills me! It's been weeks.) While a fall results in visible scars, you can see and feel, the scars on your brain may not be as evident.

However, PTSD mental injury still causes hypervigilant perceptions when the PTSD is triggered. It is important to examine your PTSD triggers, resolve to consciously choose flow, and practice making choices that don't include fighting.

Self-care, stillness practices, therapy, and personal development are ways to practice something other than fighting.

Lesson Two: Flight

Another response PTSD survivors make when triggered is to flee. When I learned Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, my professor told me leaving an attacker is a solid choice when the alternative is staying and fighting. To feel safe while walking trails in the Great Smoky Mountains where I live, I wanted to know exactly how to “choke out” an attacker, so I could fight back if attacked.

I remember the men in my group just looking at me when asked the question. They were quite surprised that I had thought through the whole attack from the point of contact to what I would do when hands touched me.

The police officer in the room simply said, "Michelle, choke out the guy until he's unconscious, pick up a big rock, break his leg, and then run back to your car. Get away. You'll live if you get away."

When I was molested as a child, I hadn’t learned to run away yet. I sat like a dead possum, playing dead, pretending not to feel the foot tickles and touches my body experienced at the hands of a pedophile. In an adult body, my scared eight-year-old brain takes over when I'm touched, even by my loving husband.

So learning to calm the nervous system and brain when triggered is a life-long process that all trauma victims can only learn with practice and by putting themselves in situations of self-care and mock survival.

That's why I love martial arts for PTSD. While it confronted my ability to be in control of my body, it was a powerful way to practice choosing a response to fight or flee. As a result, I no longer mouth off at the person who cuts me in line at the grocery store. Today, I simply walk back to my car. No breaking of the legs is necessary.

Lesson Three: Freeze

Once after having sex, my husband held me and said, "Michelle, are you there? Where did you go? Are you home? Hello! Michelle!" Having been sexually abused by a neighbor my family trusted to care for me, I sometimes freeze when touched. If you've ever held a limp animal, that is how it feels to hold an adult who is in freeze mode.

Lovers throughout my life, like my husband, manage the "freeze" of my body and the spiritual distance it creates by communicating with me to get my spirit back into my body. If you're in a relationship with a person with PTSD, patience and communication are two successful modes of self-care — not only for you but the mentally injured person you love.

Above all else, never take their freeze mode personally. Their PTSD is simply triggered, and their brain and body have chosen to freeze instead of fleeing or fighting. Communication, empathy, and understanding are the keys to moving from freeze to flow.

Today, my husband rarely experiences me "freezing" when we make love. However, triggers are a life-long reality. Every time I think they have all passed, a new memory comes to the surface for healing. Lately, I've been doing a lot of body care, including acupuncture.

During my neurofeedback and my acupuncture treatments, I remembered as if, for the first time, my perpetrator tickled my feet as his entry point into my abuse. I had forgotten that the experience was why I loathed tickling.

Today, I welcome new memories and triggers as I realize it's my body and brain healing. While tears may stream down my face while I learn to accept healing and healthy touches on my feet, I'm no longer placed in fight-or-flight mode when tickled.

Perhaps Jada and Will Smith will come to no longer loathe comments about alopecia. Maybe the body's natural process of aging and interacting with its environment will lead me more and more toward stillness and flow and away from fight, flight, or freeze mode. But what is the best way to flow when triggered?

Lesson Four: Flow

After the awards ceremony ended Monday, I found myself on a Zoom call with Adam Markel, author of Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-term Resilience. When I told him I was writing this piece about Will Smith, Markel reminded me how he teaches clients to defuse their triggers: self-care routines.

I thought about this advice from his book that I still do months after reading it: For 30 days, try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. It gets the brain used to change, and it reprograms your body to adapt. It's the first step to becoming what Markel calls "change proof." Embracing change, embracing my triggers, and even embracing my PTSD is how I learn to flow.

As I brush my teeth with my non-dominant hand, I practice being present and choosing my reactions. It may sound like a silly practice to you, but one thing I've learned in 34 years of healing is that self-care is a life-long journey.

Markel recommends self-care routines to deal with change, and in the world of mental injury, self-care is also the key to long-term healing. Self-care starts with one step, or — as in my path to flow — one brushstroke, one-foot rub, and one more choice from moment to moment.

I can only imagine that the days since the Oscars have brought Will Smith to realize that his choice to fight on Monday stands in stark opposition to the image he has cultivated and the respect he has earned from his peers. He stands for peace and fierce love for family in his own words. Peace and fierce love for others start with caring for ourselves.

Hopefully, this is a wake-up call for Will Smith and anyone else suffering from a mental injury from the past.

References

Markel, Adam. (2022). Change Proof: Leveraging the Power of Uncertainty to Build Long-Term Resilience. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

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