Behavioral and Emotional Responses to Terror


Scared Child (posted to Flickr by Pink Sherbet Photography)
Scared Child (posted to Flickr by Pink Sherbet Photography)

Posted:    23 April 2011
Updated: 19 July 2011

What happens after a terrorizing event, emotionally, physiologically, and behaviorally? Most people think that we would remember the most significant aspects of the terror but I also discuss how the nervous system can block some of these for our own survival’s sake. I discuss some important aspects of memory that are pertinent here. I then discuss one of the most frustrating of symptoms to victims of terror, helplessness.

This post will discuss typical behaviors that PTSD sufferers show, as outlined in Types of PTSD .

Sequence of Events

At first the person who has been terrorized cannot function normally.  They withdraw from all people, even those they should be able to trust. People describe it as “getting their bearings”.  The brain has to sort out all of their feelings, and set up workarounds so that basic physiological functions can still be done, even if they are being blocked by the normal routes the nervous system takes.  These workarounds may be temporary, but most will be permanent, even if the sufferer gets therapy that allows them to do certain things they had avoided immediately after the terror event. Thus, if the person is repeatedly terrorized, there will be an accumulation of workarounds.  (Nervous system workarounds are a normal response to any emotional trauma and examples are described under “Physiological Responses to Terror“). However workarounds associated with the extreme terror of a PTSD event will demand much more change in the nervous system than those constructed for less severe emotional trauma.  Because of this massive change, the person cannot function the same way they did before the event.  This statement will become much more understandable in the post on Physiological Responses to Terror“.

Terrified, Frightful Face, from Barry Langdon-Lassagne at Wikimedia

The time sequence of emotional expression is common to all terror victims.  Tremendous fear will always appear first and continue for a very long time.  It will be the only emotion during the first terror event.  This fear will be magnified by the brain to be signaled when anything that happens during the event. Even the sound of a bird landing next to the window where the victim is standing will trigger more fear. During subsequent terror attacks fear will become accompanied by other emotions, eventually increasing from anger to rage. After being able to escape to a place of relative safety (the victim will still not feel completely safe, however), the person will start to feel other emotions, generally in the order of fear, sadness, and eventually, depression.  After a longer period, the person will feel anxiety and frustration every time they have to think of the event, either consciously or unconsciously (see the discussion on the contribution of conscious and unconscious brain to emotion in “Emotional Representation in the Brain“).

During this post-traumatic period, the brain will direct all of its energy toward constructing mechanisms to prevent the brain from experiencing the effects of this emotional trauma again, since it does such extensive damage to emotional circuits.  The brain uses memory of an event as a guide toward making predictions about the effects of similar future events.  Thus, it stores details about the body’s responses to that event in an archive.  That archive is called upon by the brain to provide a baseline of response.  Differences in events that occur after the first one are used to make new predictions and alter the original program. No program of response is thrown out.  However, experience adds up and helps to alter all original programs, as copies, over time. Thus, older programs can be put to rest when the brain blocks all neurons from “consulting” them in the archive.

The Unmemorable Memories

Because our responses to the terror are made up of many different steps, some of these steps are retained in different neural programs, and others dropped.  We might respond with the same action to what appears to most observers as totally different situations, but the situations may share several aspects unconscious to us, e.g. the same smell, taste, temperature, touch, pain, pressure, or position sense. They may contain something we saw in both cases that is easily “forgotten” by our conscious memory because it doesn’t seem important enough to mention, e.g., both events had a small green bottle in the picture, or both people had a golfer patch on the shirt (see my blog post “Memory”).

Or the similarity may rest in what the body was repairing at both times. Thus repeated attempts to start or finish a repair of a broken bone will be made if, for some reason, particular centers in the brain responsible for its repair keep getting blocked from action.  If, by chance, some traumatic event happens during a repair attempt, it will forever be associated with that repair. For instance, if medical intervention is done to “force” the completion of repair, the patient might experience the same emotions or have the same thoughts he/she did when experiencing the emotional trauma. So, when attempting to repair any trauma it is important that the patient address not only the immediate damage but also any past damage done due to this or any associated traumas. (See my blog posting “Using MRT: Recovering From Trauma“).

Helplessness and Immobility

The ultimate in "freeze response", tonic immobility in an opossum, at Wikimedia
The ultimate in “freeze response”, tonic immobility in an opossum, at Wikimedia

Feelings of helplessness are common to all types of PTSD but expressed differently. The type I PTSD sufferer will display a parasympathetic response and the type II and type III sufferers a sympathetic response. In other words, the latter two types will want to fight or flee, and the first one will freeze. The physiological responses are totally opposite (see my post on “Physiological Responses to Terror“).

Behavioral symptoms that show which of the two physiological responses are in effect when the victim has feelings of helplessness are seen in several ways.  A person displaying the parasympathetic response will be reluctant to move, to do anything and will have to be poked and prodded to do something.  A mother trying to get her 3-year-old to leave one store aisle to go to another, may have to physically pick the child up and carry him away from the area, even when she knows the child is perfectly capable of walking away when commanded to do so.  An adult will show these symptoms when he/she must get to a particular place in a short amount of time, but finds it extremely difficult even to walk, as if they have to push each foot forward in the right sequence.  Upon reflection, the adult may wonder why the muscles are so unwilling to contract, since there is no physical pain at all or any reason they should not be working at that time.  The causes of the symptoms are completely unconscious to the victim.

Other symptoms of the parasympathetic response can be seen when the victim may be just sitting quietly thinking about things and suddenly has more difficulty in breathing. It feels as if the muscles of the diaphragm and ribs just refuse to work or will only work very reluctantly.  The victim almost has to “will” them to work.  The same sudden onset of these symptoms could occur at any time, right in the middle of having to do something very important where the victim feels he/she must hide the fact they are having difficulty from anyone watching them closely. The ultimate result is a compounding of the symptoms.

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© Copyright 2014 by Martha L. Hyde and


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