Recently I’ve been immersing myself in the world of nervous system regulation and survival stress. At some point during this period I found myself going through my playlists identifying songs which for me encapsulated the fight, flight and freeze responses, because, well, what else is a therapist going to do on their day off?! I thought this might be an accessible way to talk more about the relevance of these survival responses and so this half psychoeducation and half High Fidelity-esque flight of fancy blog post was born.
Music as state changer
You don’t need to specialise in music therapy to know it can allow us to access and process emotions in a way that few other things can (other than perhaps movement, which is why combining the two can be particularly effective and hence Bessel van der Kolk’s half-joke (?!) that salsa dancing is more effective for trauma treatment than conventional talk therapy).
What is the Flight/Fight/Freeze response anyway (AKA the psychoeducation part)
Flight, Flight and Freeze are our instinctive autonomic nervous system’s reflexive responses to threat. These reactions are designed to protect us and because we may well need them when we encounter future danger, we don’t want to get rid of them. These instinctive responses aren’t problems in and of themselves, but they often get a bad rep as issues arise when we get stuck in these states due to trauma or chronic stress. When these responses are curtailed and left unprocessed we often find we can’t bring our bodies back into parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ zone and this is where problems can begin (for more on this see Carolyn Spring’s helpful summary/traffic light analogy of polyvagal nervous system states ).
Fight is our aggressive response to threat. On a physiological level, both fight and flight are fairly similar in that we release hormones such as adrenaline to allow us to respond quickly. These responses often show up physically in pounding heart and shakiness. We might also notice clenched fists and jaw, tense shoulders.
Most of the music I listened to on repeat in my 20s (Bikini Kill, Babes in Toyland, Minor Threat) would probably fit under the ‘fight’ category. When I started digging further into this however, I realised the fight response didn’t always come across in the lyrics, which doesn’t really work for blog post purposes and so I’ve ended up selecting a couple of pop-leaning choices here which to me encapsulate the fight response.
Christina Aguilera – Fighter.
The clue’s in the name with this one.
‘I am a fighter and I ain’t gonna stop.
There is no turning back. I’ve had enough’
Kelis – Caught Out There
This song is for all the women out there. That’ve been lied to by their men
And I know you all been lied to
Over and over again
This is for y’all, Maybe you didn’t break the way you shoulda broke
But I break
Although, to be fair, this one is probably also less about the lyrics and more about Kelis screaming and repeating ‘I hate you so much right now’ over and over again before trashing the place. Pure catharsis.
Flight is our natural in-built response to put physical distance between us and danger. Physiologically this shows up in many of the same ways as the fight response above, particularly with mobilisation and activation in our limbs. When our flight responses are curtailed and we are trapped in unsafe situations we can’t escape from, we often experience overwhelming fear, which can get supressed and stuck, only to show up later in experiences such as chronic anxiety and panic attacks.
Run baby Run – Garbage
‘when nothing seems certain or safe
Let it burn through you… Run my baby run my baby run
Run from the noise of the street and the loaded gun’
Possibly the ultimate running song?!
RearViewMirror -Pearl Jam
‘I gather speed from you fucking with me…
Saw things so much clearer
Once you, were in my Rearviewmirror’
I don’t know if Eddie Vedder’s actually on the record as saying this song was about his less than ideal childhood, but this song is here because for me it utterly encapsulates the desire to get the hell away from an abusive person and as such feels like the flight response in action.
Or ‘dorsal vagal state’ as it’s catchily known in Polyvagal theory. If the brain perceives that fight/flight are likely to be ineffective the next, final stop survival strategy is freeze. Immobilised, shut down and, at its most extreme, playing dead, the strategy is designed to make a predator lose interest. It’s super important to stress that responses are involuntary and we don’t have conscious control of them. So if you’re a survivor feeling guilt about ‘not fighting back’, if you only take one thing from this strange little blog post, know that your response wasn’t a choice, a personal failing, or something you need to feel guilt or shame about. Although things might seem quiet on the surface of the freeze response, underneath there’s often a lot of trapped fight/flight energy.
Finding songs which encapsulate the freeze response was the most challenging for me, music and shutdown don’t really go together (which perhaps provides a clue about one way to move out of this state if it’s one you find yourself in often.)
Numb – Linkin Park
‘I’ve become so numb
I can’t feel you there
I’m tired of being what you want me to be’
Nothing Came Out – The Moldy Peaches
‘Just because I don’t say anything
Doesn’t mean I don’t like you.
I open my mouth and I try and I try
But no words come out.’
In The Body Keeps The Score Bessel describes how fMRI brain scans have shown decreased activity in Broca’s area, the part of the brain responsible for speech, from people recounting trauma. Another reason why Bessel is so down on traditional talk therapy for working with trauma survivors.
The word ‘trauma’ often conjures up obvious and horrific experiences of abuse and suffering – physical and sexual assault, war, natural disaster. These kind of experiences are more likely to result in PTSD and flashbacks, and are often what comes to the minds of the public when thinking about trauma. The concept of ‘small t trauma’ broadens out the concept and encompasses experiences such as persistent lack of attunement from caregivers, neglect, emotional abuse, bullying etc and is more likely to be associated with emotional dysregulation or emotional flashbacks, ‘mood disorders’, CPTSD, and attachment difficulties. (However, it’s worth noting I’ve also seen the concept of small t trauma increasingly questioned by trauma experts, partly because of the implied hierarchy and partly because these experiences produce survival stress and trauma responses in exactly the same way).
I wasn’t going to include Fawn in here, as it’s a response which is a bit more complex involving abandoning your own needs and feelings to prioritise and care for others. As such it doesn’t really fit with the instinctive physiological responses detailed above, but P!nk’s Family Portrait encapsulates this so completely I couldn’t not include it here:
‘Can we work it out?
Can we be a family?
I promise I’ll be better, I promise I’ll do anything…
I promise I’ll be better
Daddy, please, don’t leave’
That’s it in terms of my selections for now. Despite this being a trauma-related blog post, I had fun with this and hope you did too. Because I’m of a certain age (*coughs*) my selections have a definite 90’s/00’s bias but if you know of other music that fits, I’d genuinely be interested.
Maybe at some point I’ll do another music related post (including a plea for Peter Levine and Taylor Swift to do a collab on ‘Shake It Off’ and general fan-girl-ing of The Sunset Tree amongst others)…