Fight, Flight or Freeze (Acute Stress Response) are all psychological trauma responses that caregivers know well.
You hear caregivers say, “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.” That’s because we are constantly on edge waiting for the next crisis that will upend our life and require interaction with the healthcare system, insurance company, home care agency or bank. The list is endless. In fact, Denise Brown, founder of the Caregiving Years Training Academy has identified 17 Caregiving Systems that caregivers must navigate, manage and advocate within. It’s no wonder we are stressed. Add all the other things impacted by caregiving like family, work, money, a disruption of our established routines, and it is no wonder we constantly have a stress response in our bodies.
It never occurred to me that my fight, flight or freeze response would not go away once caregiving ended. That it would continue, but in a different way. My response of an increased heart rate and blood pressure, which precipitated mom moving into assisted living, is not something I live with every day now. Instead, my acute stress response is difficulty with memory and an increase in sleeping, which makes me think I’m in freeze mode instead of fight or flight. Freeze mode can be described as playing dead after slamming on the breaks. In other words, my parasympathetic nervous system has swamped my sympathetic nervous system and I’m in shut down mode. I feel numb, have low energy and my disposition is impacted.
Even five months after my mother’s death, my body has not come to terms with the fact that threats are neutralized and I don’t have to live in a state of constant vigilance. Maybe this is why I have taken to waking up from a dream, worried that I forgot to do something for mom or that she needed me and I was not there.
And guess what? Other caregivers tell me it can take years for your acute stress response to go away. It is because trauma is not kept in our muscles or bones, even though the physical manifestation of it like neck tension, back pain or stomach upset would make it seem like it is. Trauma caused by perceived threats is stored in the hippocampus and amygdala, the memory and emotional centers of our brain. The scary thing is that lasting traumatic stress can be associated with lasting changes in your memory and emotional centers.
So, what do you do about it? How do you train your body to not be in an acute stress response? It turns out, the message of how important self-care is for caregivers is just as important after caregiving ends. The trauma emotions trapped in our bodies are helped by movement. They are helped by meditation, a nap, getting out into nature or taking a bubble bath. All the self-care suggestions given to us during caregiving are just as important after caregiving ends.
For me, my hardest acute stress response is my low energy. I keep putting pressure on myself, “but you have additional time in your life now. ”Why aren’t you doing more work, going out with friends and cleaning the house?” I am learning in this freeze state to listen to my body and not, as Elizabeth Miller from Happy Healthy Caregiver says, “should all over myself.”
I am learning that taking one small action, like putting the dishes in the dishwasher, gives me a sense of accomplishment and leads me to taking on bigger tasks, like vacuuming. Reaching out with a phone call can lead to getting together for coffee. That one networking event a day is enough and it’s ok to choose one in the afternoon because morning seems overwhelming.
Caregiving changes you. It stands to reason that you need to give yourself time to figure out who you are today and how you want to live the life you have now. Chances are, it will not look the same as it did before caregiving and that’s OK.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is the author of “Your Caregiver Relationship Contract and “A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers.” Your Caregiver Relationship Contract is available in both English and Spanish. It explains how to have an intentional conversation and the how unspoken expectations can cause problems during caregiving. A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers explains how important it is to learn how your person wants to live their live out and how you, the caregiver is the most important person in this relationship, giving you tips and tricks for this journey.
Click here to learn more about Your Caregiver Relationship Contract or here for the Spanish version: Su Contrato de relación como cuidador de un ser querido. Click here to learn more about A Relationship Contract for Dementia Caregivers.
Deb is available as a caregiver consultant. She will answer the question: “Where do I start?” and find the resources to alleviate your stress. If you would like to invest a half hour to learn how she can help you, please contact her at: Free 30 minute consulting call
Rhonda Howard says
This article is soooo good. I was caregiver for my husband. He passed away in January of 2022. He had congestive heart failure with many side problems. He was non-compliant and felt that doctors were the enemy. He deteriorated through the years no matter how much I or people who loved him tried to help him. I felt like I stopped loving him. I wanted to run away. I didn’t think I could ever be happy.
So many things in this article were spot on to so many things I experienced. By the time he died I was walking with a cane because of back problems and unsteadiness. He died at age 84 and I was 69. We had been married 35 years. I had fantasized for years about being single and doing things I wanted to do. His last 12 days were painful and miserable. So sad.
It has taken months to feel better. I am still healing and still have sadness, guilt and many more emotions. This article almost made me weep as I realize it’s not just me. I’m not alone.
Thank you for putting it all in words.
Debra Hallisey says
Thank you for sharing your story. I am glad you are starting to heal and I understand all the emotions that continue to flood through you. You are not alone.
What a relief to find this article…waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I was caregiver seven years for my husband. Last August (2022) he was placed in nursing home/rehab under hospice care. We lost our daughter a month prior and I became ill with Covid.
During the past two I was diagnosed with RA and Sweet Syndrome,
I’m so relived to hear that things I’m experiencing is normal and I don’t have to explain or feel guilty about. I will continue to educate myself- thank you for this insightful information.
Debra Hallisey says
What a strong woman you are! You have gone through so much trauma in such a short amount of time. I am glad that you no longer feel like you owe anyone an explanation and can let go of the guilt. I am so glad my journey helped you to see how normal everything you are experiencing is for you and countless other caregivers.