A brief ‘science-y’ explanation of ‘Fight, flight, or freeze,’ part 2

A Black psychologist’s call to action addressing the trauma of racism, murder, injustice and death in America

By April M. Jackson-James, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

Do you remember your 10th-grade biology class where they taught you about your amygdala? Our amygdala lives near our brain stem, and it is one of the earliest parts of the human brain to develop.

Its job is to keep us alive and safe from danger. Specifically, the amygdala’s job is to shut down our frontal lobe, the part of our brain that oversees reason and executive function (our frontal lobe is the last part of the brain to develop around age 25).

The amygdala makes sure that when the bear comes to attack you, you are not analyzing the color of the bear’s pupils. Your amygdala makes sure that your sole focus is staying alive by fighting the bear, getting the heck out of there, or playing dead. Fight, flight or freeze.

Unfortunately, our amygdala is vulnerable to ongoing trauma. It can be damaged. Repeated trauma results in it telling us that we are in danger even when we are not. Sometimes this damage is so severe that it results in an actual diagnosis: traumatic stress disorder, or in its worst form post-traumatic stress disorder.

What am I saying? I am going back to my psychological roots, and I am making a community call for action. While we are demanding reforms at the police department and asking for justice in the justice department when human beings are stalked and killed by vigilantes or the police, I also want us to place the burden of assessment on our medical, psychiatric, psychological, counseling, and social work communities to always — ALWAYS — assess and make appropriate referrals for trauma.

We can integrate something as simple as the ACES Questionnaire, which looks at 10 key adverse childhood experiences that are correlated with various health and mental health diseases, including cancer and suicide.

We can ask specifically about the symptoms of present-day trauma (e.g., nightmares, avoidance behaviors, disassociation or flashbacks, anger outbursts, reckless and destructive behavior, poor concentration, irritability, etc.) and when we find symptoms, make sure that we are making appropriate referrals.

Recognize trauma. Assess for trauma. Make the appropriate referrals in the face of finding trauma symptoms.

Our practice, Metamorphosis Life Revitalizing Center, is in the process of expanding to create an ancillary organization (Metamorphosis Life Assist) to increase the availability of mental health care in our community. We will need the community’s help to be successful in our endeavors.

Our counselors maintain full caseloads; we cannot take all the referrals that need to be made. We do not accept all the medical insurance available in our community, and we do not have enough counselors to address the totality of this problem. In other words, this is not an advertisement for our place of employment.

This is a movement both locally and nationally. In the next segment, we will discuss what this psychologist believes should be done within this trauma-informed movement — this movement of care.

Founder of the Metamorphosis Life Revitalizing Center in Tampa, Dr. April M. Jackson-James is a highly-skilled, licensed psychologist with a passion for God, family, and family therapy. For more information, visit betteronpurpose.com.

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