Over the years I have found it quite fascinating how powerful the survival instinct is within the human brain. When you just think of this instinct there does not seem to be all that much special about it. The instinct just seems rather normal, a primal fight or flight oldest part of the brain function for the preservation of the body. Big deal, all animals have it. The baseline across the board instinct itself is not what I find interesting. It is the way the survival instinct can function in the human that is so fascinating and has been the focus of some of my mental/emotional healing processes.
When we look at the survival instinct in most animals we find it comes from the most primitive part of the brain which controls fight or flight mechanisms. When danger raises this area of the brain activates and produces the chemical reactions necessary to prompt the brain and body into action for the sole purpose of survival. Typically this reaction creates either a flight or fight response. Now when this is happening in an animal the response tends to end once the threat is removed or expired. The deer gets spooked and the deer runs. Once the threat of danger is passed the deer stops, makes sure the threat is over, relaxes and goes back to its daily activities. The human brain is a bit more complex and so the survival instinct tends to take on a different level.
In humans the survival instinct can be tied to degrading emotions. No longer is the fight or flight response the only primal response in the face of danger. Other emotions are produced and mix in with the fight or flight response. Even when the danger is over, these side emotions can continue to carry the energy of the danger response into daily life. Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, fear, grief and others can come into play with the chemical mix of a danger response.
Through trauma those emotions can become so great that their ability to hold the danger response of fight or flight remains strong and present long after danger is gone. The brain alterations through trauma can create enhanced or suppressed regions that can either prevent access to select emotions and their reactions or an elevated and abnormal level of response to them. This can be seen very easily while studying PTSD/CPTSD, as well as other forms of intense trauma response.
Without the intensity of trauma or ongoing trauma the fight or flight reaction ends when the threat is over, but with trauma and or reoccurring trauma this fight or flight reaction can lock into other emotions and continue long after danger passes. These other emotions can then become carriers for the fight or flight response, just like we are all carriers for bacteria and viruses. We do not realize we are carrying the bacteria or virus unless our immune system gets compromised and we fall ill. Trauma can, but not always, can compromise our brain immune system you might say. In that case the emotions carrying the fight or flight response will make themselves known when no danger is present.
Let me give some examples to perhaps fine tune clarification.
One of the things some people who have had cult trauma experiences (and I am not referring to minor weird internet cults, but the heavy ones that deal in very real physical, emotional, mental and spiritual abuse, sexual and torture rituals, etc) The one I was involved in created very deep level traumas and played upon the fight or flight and primal sexual energies of the brain and body. (see the Memory of Glass series) Under those circumstances the trauma was induced through forced drug administration and the resulting altered states of consciousness, combined with the sexual energy intensification, the physical abuse, the violence being created around me and the overall environment. My mind was traumatized through the harsh experiences, but during the harsh experiences of danger other emotions beyond the fear survival instinct were at play. Emotions such as guilt, shame, grief, despair, anxiety and the muddied emotional mix created carrier energies in-which the survival instinct of fear locks into.
Therefore what I found within myself, with the assistance of trauma counseling, was that while my brain and body endured the trauma, my heart and brain, through the survival instinct fear, also generated feelings of guilt and shame (for submitting to and being part of the events), anger (for being forced to participate in such experiences), anxiety (being wigged out in an altered state of consciousness while unable to control my body and sexual energy), and grief (from seeing the violence committed upon others with no way to stop it). Each of those emotions was so strong, but because of the intensity of the survival instinct, especially in an altered state, was not able to be expressed outwardly. Those unexpressed emotions under the survival instinct then turned into carriers for the trauma and thus associated fear. Many areas of my life then were directed by and held the emotions of guilt, shame, anger, anxiety with the fear instinct laced inside each. Even in situations where there was no danger of any kind present, these emotions and the fight or flight mechanism were present and running in the background.
During events that were triggering for me these underlying emotions would rise up in strength and become fully my present, even when nothing of my past and no danger was present.
Combine that with the agency training and 16 years of associated work and you end up with a severe amount of trauma combined with all those layers and layers of degrading emotions that were all laced with the survival instinct. That means whenever one of those emotions would rise in my life, through triggering, the fight or flight response would kick in, anger would rise quickly and intensely and my entire perspective on my present reality would be torn asunder. I would be emotionally and even mentally thrown backward into the time period of those traumas, without the conscious knowledge or focus on any of those specific events. Sure I am fully aware of those events, but during those times of triggering and survival instinct rises, the ability to recall those memories and connect them to the present feelings just was not there.
Of course I still have my spells. I would not be truthful or responsible if I said otherwise. Nevertheless, it has been teaching me a great deal about various levels of the human survival instinct that I was not aware of before, the attachment of other emotions as carriers of the instinct and the various and sometimes outwardly seemingly unconnected actions.
Another angle where the survival instinct can be a burden to the brain and body is this. When I was being trained in the facility I of course had to do many horrors, many while under altered states. The 16 years of work of course included countless acts and experiences of horror beyond many people’s imagining. Even when I was being tortured I fought to survive. My survival instinct was strong and even upon the line of death and misery beyond conscious comprehension I fought to stay alive.
Afterward I continued to fight to stay alive, even when all hope had been taken from me and I was directed to perform atrocities, I continued to fight to stay alive rather than submitting to death. The brain would rather live in extreme suffering than submit to death. This is the human survival instinct at its peak. The twist comes in later. As time progresses and life allows the opportunity to rest and reflect the shame and guilt arise from the darkness as they are carriers of the survival fear. Guilt for staying alive while those around you died. Shame for fighting for my survival only to inflict harm upon others. The gnawing question of why did I not just submit to death instead of fighting to survive and accumulate all those experiences of horror to life with? All of those things came up along the therapy path. All things that had to be acknowledged, faced, understood and released.
That is just another example of how the survival instinct can be a hindrance because of its complexity in the human brain.
This is not to say that all emotions are carriers to the survival instinct from some sort of trauma. Many emotions like shame and guilt can run through genetics and other energy venues like I spoke of in my Baseline Human Emotion series and Cyclic Trauma Induced Patterns. This article is more to present the awareness that various levels of trauma experiences can not only bring about the fight or flight response, but also other emotions that can become carriers of the trauma and survival instinct. Together they can create complications throughout daily life under the guise of many other things that can attempt to redirect our focus away from the origins; thus part of the brain’s survival instinct, fight back or run from the potential danger, and the danger in this case are the memories the emotions are connected to. The survival mind dynamics are far more complicated than many people expose or perhaps even know themselves.