Fight or Flight

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

How to deal with the trauma of being attacked. How to release the pain of trauma and begin to heal your brain and your body.


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Tana Amen: Hello everyone, I'm Tana Amen.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'm Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen: We're so excited to be here with you today, and we are going to talk about the flight or fight syndrome, and what happens when you get stuck in it. Why do we have it, what happens, and why do you get stuck?

Dr Daniel Amen: It's actually a normal physiological response that we are, as humans, hardwired, actually most species are hard wired. So when we become frightened, or scared, quickly our adrenal glands produce adrenaline and cortisol.

Tana Amen: Right.

Dr Daniel Amen: What happens immediately, our hands get cold, because blood is shunted from our hands and feet to the muscles in our shoulder and our hips, so that we can fight or we can run away.

Tana Amen: Right. I've actually studied a lot about this as well after being assaulted, and I practiced martial arts. One thing that you learn is there's a huge rush of adrenaline, this huge rush of adrenaline that happens, and several things can happen. People react different ways. They either freeze, they run, or they fight. Part of it depends on your nature, your experience, how you're sort of hardwired. But along with that adrenaline rush, a few things happen. In addition to what you just said, your speech can become monosyllabic, that doesn't seem to happen to me, we'll explain in a minute. But, your speech can actually become monosyllabic, you'll have a hard time talking.

Dr Daniel Amen: Or you repeat the same awful thing over and over again, so maybe it does.

Tana Amen: Don't. Stop giving me a hard time. You often will use one syllable words. You will have a loss of fine motor skills sometimes, so you start using very gross motor movements, and you get tunnel vision, and your breathing becomes super shallow.

Dr Daniel Amen: And very fast.

Tana Amen: Very fast and very shallow.

Dr Daniel Amen: Like you're having a panic attack.

Tana Amen: Right, so what happens is some people, because of all of these things that happen, they literally will curl up in a ball and freeze. Some people will actually wet themselves or lose bowel function, because they just don't know what to do. The feat can be that overwhelming. So this is designed to protect you in a sense, but it's not designed to stay there very long. There are ways to train it.

Dr Daniel Amen: If you have too many bad things, or stressful things happen in a row, it can reset your nervous system to a much higher level. There's an interesting concept in neuroscience called kindling, which is where you take a nerve cell and you put some electricity through the nerve cell and nothing happens, but as you increase the voltage, pretty soon the nerve cell will fire off, and if you keep that voltage up high enough for long enough, the nerve cell is said to become kindled. What that means is you can actually lower the intensity and it still fires off. So, if you grow up in an alcoholic home, it's one of the things I studied when I was a young resident, psychiatric reseident. If you grow up in a stressful, traumatic environment, it actually resents your nervous system to a much higher level. 30 years later you're married and everything's fine, but your husband looks at you what you think is the wrong way, and all of the sudden you go into a rage, because it's triggering a memory system in the brain that has been sensitized or kindled.

Tana Amen: And sometimes, I know when I met you, you thought that this was my problem, and I'm like, "Yeah, you're crazy, I'm fine."

Dr Daniel Amen: I have no judgement.

Tana Amen: No, he thought that, "Oh, you've been living with this stress for a long time." You can see PTSD in the brain, unfortunately, so I wasn't able to-

Dr Daniel Amen: We published studies on that.

Tana Amen: Right. So he could see it in my brain. But, a lot of that, I think, and maybe you can speak to this, has to do with how you grew up, how you process things and how you grew up. Whether or not you're a fighter, you run, or you freeze. Like I grew up in a house with a mom who was a serious fighter. We had nothing, she was a 16 year old runaway, but fighting became a way of life, it was survival. One of my early memories was we had a burglar in the house when we got home from the movies. I lived alone with my mom, and my mom grabbed a shotgun, chased the guy down the hall, and shot the shotgun out the back window. Now, looking back I'm like, "Mom, you do realize you can't shoot someone in the back, right?" She didn't shoot anybody, thank God. She actually wasn't tying to, she shot it into the flower bed to scare him, but t point being my mom was very intense.

I have a half-sister who grew up with a mom who tended to try to get away from problems. She was more passive and running away from problems, so she tends to freeze up, and run away, so one of those two responses. So, we are extremely different in how we respond when things go wrong, when things go sideways.

Dr Daniel Amen: So Tana reacts.

Tana Amen: Immediately.

Dr Daniel Amen: And I tend to freeze. I don't like it-

Tana Amen: See, I'm that person who will run into burning building.

Dr Daniel Amen: But when we were walking in our neighborhood-

Tana Amen: Oh yeah. You're not going to. No. We were actually at the beach, we weren't in our neighborhood.

Dr Daniel Amen: No, no. The first time. We'll talk about the beach in a second. But we're in our neighborhood, and we had Tinkerbell, our little black poodle, there was a pit bull-

Tana Amen: Two pit bulls off-leash.

Dr Daniel Amen: Off-leash.

Tana Amen: Two of them.

Dr Daniel Amen: And they came toward us.

Tana Amen: They charged us.

Dr Daniel Amen: And what I did is I picked up Tinkerbell, and Tana scared the dogs. It was hysterical. You ran actually toward them-

Tana Amen: Yeah, I jumped in front of them. But, I also know ... See, in my head it's a fear-driven thing. I know that things that run become prey, so it's just a fact-

Dr Daniel Amen: Well I wasn't running, but I was protecting. But you were-

Tana Amen: I jumped in her face and screamed at her.

Dr Daniel Amen: And they did not want to mess with you.

Tana Amen: And then you started laughing. You started laughing at me and as we're walking home, you go, "That was the highlight of my day!" And I'm like, "What? Why would the highlight of your day be two pit bulls charging at us?" And you go, "No, not that. The highlight of my day is seeing my redheaded wife face off with a pit bull." I'm like, "Oh my gosh, you're so twisted."

Dr Daniel Amen: Well that didn't turn out so well, a couple of years later, where we were down ... It was early evening on Corona del Mar, in Newport Beach, in a beautiful place-

Tana Amen: That was one of the scariest days of my life.

Dr Daniel Amen: A beautiful safe, we thought, place near where we lived-

Tana Amen: But it was getting dark.

Dr Daniel Amen: It was getting dark.

Tana Amen: And my intuition was let's not walk down to the end where it's dark and I can't see and I know there's people down there.

Dr Daniel Amen: Right. And I'm like, because I live in Disney Land in my head-

Tana Amen: Yes. Thank you for acknowledging that.

Dr Daniel Amen: We had our big, white German Shepard Aslan with us, and I stepped, I have my Fitbit-

Tana Amen: And let's clarify. Aslan , I have to protect my dog. He is not a protection dog.

Dr Daniel Amen: Well, he did a good job that day.

Tana Amen: He did.

Dr Daniel Amen: He did. He's just the most beautiful dog-

Tana Amen: Sweetest dog.

Dr Daniel Amen: And sweet as can be, not looking for a fight-

Tana Amen: Ever.

Dr Daniel Amen: As we walked down the path on the jetty, all of the sudden, now two more pit bulls-

Tana Amen: Off lead.

Dr Daniel Amen: Off lead.

Tana Amen: But these were fighting dogs, these were not normal pit bulls.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... Come running toward us and I slipped-

Tana Amen: They were on top of Aslan before we could even do anything, because it was kind of dark, they were on him! One had him by the underside, one had him by the top of the neck. Actually, we both went after them. You kicked one of them, I kicked the other one-

Dr Daniel Amen: I kicked one of them in the face, didn't matter.

Tana Amen: The one I kicked didn't even react at all. Like an idiot I grabbed him around the neck. Looking back, I'm thinking how stupid I was, grabbing him around the neck and screaming.

Dr Daniel Amen: And Aslan actually fell off the wall into the water onto the rocks, and I was scared to death. I thought he was going to break his back or his neck.

Tana Amen: We thought he was going to die, and I could see blood all over, I didn't know whose blood it was, because one of the pit bulls had bit you, so I was freaked out. As soon as I saw the blood, not that I wasn't freaked out before that, but when I saw blood I saw red, literally. This little red switch flips in my head when I get scared. You can make me as mad as you want ...

Dr Daniel Amen: Don't scare you.

Tana Amen: If you scare me, you better find some place to hide, because it's a weird reaction I have, and it triggers psychosis in me.

Dr Daniel Amen: And that would be true that day. That would be true. So Tana then jumped off the wall to be near Aslan -

Tana Amen: To go get him out of the water.

Dr Daniel Amen: And then just starts screaming at the gang banger that owned those pit bulls and I had to tell her to shut up, because I'm thinking this guy's got a gun, he's got these two crazy dogs-

Tana Amen: And I didn't care.

Dr Daniel Amen: ... And the dogs, they weren't after us, they were after Aslan .

Tana Amen: But let me tell what was going on in my head. I could hear, it was almost like an out of body experience where I could hear my husband saying, "You need to shut up. Guys like that who have dogs like that have guns!" When I heard him, I could almost see myself, and I was thinking to myself, "I know he's right." But the words that came out of my mouth following the thought, "I know he's right," were, I can't actually repeat what I said, but I was screaming at the top of my lungs that he better have a gun, because I'm going to kill his blankity blank dogs. I was screaming a him and his dogs, and I wouldn't stop-

Dr Daniel Amen: And you wouldn't stop.

Tana Amen: No I just kept-

Dr Daniel Amen: So I'm now traumatized twice, three times. I'm attacked, my dog's attacked, I think my dog's going to die, and my wife is now ... I need to put her in the hospital. She's certifiably crazy.

Tana Amen: You were going to 5150 me or something! But I couldn't stop it, because it was this switch that goes off when it's true fear. Only when it's true fear, like when I really am in survival mode, and some people freeze, some people run-

Dr Daniel Amen: And for me, I'm like, "How do we get out of this situation?"

Tana Amen: No, you started being the psychiatrist, he's trying to talk to the guy!

Dr Daniel Amen: No, I'm trying to get safe! The only thing I wanted at that moment was safety.

Tana Amen: And you're trying to talk to the guy and rationalize with him.

Dr Daniel Amen: I'm not beating him up, that's obvious.

Tana Amen: Oh no, I wanted to do horrible things to him.

Dr Daniel Amen: Right. I'm grateful you didn't have a weapon, because we needed to get safe-

Tana Amen: I actually am too.

Dr Daniel Amen: So the first thing to do when something bad happens is you look and go, "How can I be safe?"

Tana Amen: But honey, hold on, I understand that's how your brain works, but not all of us think like that. It is a primal response.

Dr Daniel Amen: No, I understand. And that's why we have frontal lobes.

Tana Amen: No, it's a primal response. But hold on-

Dr Daniel Amen: Our frontal lobes are the brain's break that helps us assess the situation.

Tana Amen: I have a question though, and one of my questions, because we are so different in how we respond to those types of reactions, could it be a male-female response? Could it be the different and in the fact that as a female, after having been assaulted in the past, that it's almost like ... Do women tend to react differently to try and get bigger about it?

Dr Daniel Amen: No, I don't think it's women, I think it depends on your past.

Tana Amen: Oh, okay.

Dr Daniel Amen: So, if a guy had been raised in the environment that you were in and saw a mother like yours, who's a fighter, I think he would have reacted the same way-

Tana Amen: Okay, so it's more about your template.

Dr Daniel Amen: And since I didn't grow up, really, with trauma ... I mean, I had enough of my own trauma, we'll go into that another time-

Tana Amen: Different kind.

Dr Daniel Amen: But it's like safety became the most important thing for you, for Aslan, for myself. That's when you really want your frontal lobes to kick in.

Tana Amen: Oh, I'm grateful for your reaction.

Dr Daniel Amen: So when you are panicked, what can people do?

Tana Amen: One of the first things that I've learned in martial arts ... now the interesting thing is you actually have to get your wits about you long enough to remember this, because when that adrenaline kicks in it's really hard, you breathe. You've got to belly breath, you take a few deep breaths from your belly and that will help. One of the other things that-

Dr Daniel Amen: So you assess the situation, and in order for that to happen you need oxygen in your brain. In that moment where I slipped, he bit me, I'm breathing too fast, I don't have good oxygen to my brain ...

Tana Amen: And you make bad decisions.

Dr Daniel Amen: So three deep breaths just to get oxygen, so you can kick in your frontal lobes, and then assess the situation.

Tana Amen: Then another thing that happens is tunnel vision. Like you said, your hands get cold, you get tunnel vision, so breaking that tunnel vision can often really settle you down by just breaking the symptoms that are happening, the biological things that are happening, it can actually change your reaction. If you can start to move your eyes back and forth, sideways, back and forth, you'd break that tunnel vision, can be very helpful.

Dr Daniel Amen: The next thing is to put your hands on your shoulders, on the opposite shoulders, and just rub down two or three times. That stimulates both sides of your brain, and that can begin to sort of settle things down so that you can make a good decision, because that's the most important thing in a situation like that, because the decisions you make can save or put your life in jeopardy.

Tana Amen: And I'm grateful for your reaction, actually, and your intent, at least, to settle me down. It didn't really work. I'd actually train and actually gone and tried to learn how to change that, but when it's a primal response, it's a little more difficult to, but these are ways you can actually sort of break through.

Dr Daniel Amen: Right. For people who have been traumatized, it's over seven and a half percent of the population have PTSD. That means 20 million people or more have significant or lasting emotional trauma. You see it actually get stuck in the brain, that there's a pattern we call the diamond pattern, where it works too hard, and EMDR-

Tana Amen: I love EMDR.

Dr Daniel Amen: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can be really helpful. For people who have PTSD, you can go to and learn more about it. There's a new technique I like called havening, that can be very effective for some people to take away the emotional charge of negative situations. Tapping has been shown to be helpful as well, and hypnosis. One of my favorite.

Tana Amen: Absolutely.

Dr Daniel Amen: And on Brain Fit Life, our online program, We actually have six different hypnosis downloads, one of them for anxiety, it's perfect for a situation like this, and one of your favorite things is NLP.

Tana Amen: Right, so after the dog situation, I was emotionally charged for a long time. I couldn't talk about it without getting the same biological reactions I had in the moment, I was shaking, I was having bad dreams.

Dr Daniel Amen: And I heard those words you used over and over again.

Tana Amen: I actually went and I did havening and NLP. It took it away, it took the charge away. Now, if I talk about it, I don't have the same reaction. I'm very cautious now, but I don't have that same emotional charge to it.

Dr Daniel Amen: We hope this is helpful for you. So many of us have had emotional trauma in the past. If you have, that's normal. But, we want you to be able to soothe and settle your brain, so that you can live the most amazing brain healthy brain warrior life. Stay with us.

Donny: Thanks for listening to today's show, The Brain Warrior's Way. Why don't you head over to, that's Brain Warriors Way Podcast dot com, where Daniel and Tana have a gift for you just for subscribing to the show, and when you post your review on iTunes, you'll be entered into a drawing where you can win a VIP visit to one of the Amen clinics. I'm Donny Osmond, and I invite you to step up your brain game by joining us in the next episode.