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  • Writer's pictureRae Gateley, LCSW

Cheetahs Don't Run Marathons

(A metaphor for understanding the effects of sustained survival-mode activation.)

The well-known "fight, flight, or freeze" concept describes the body's automatic and instantaneous response to a threatening situation. What is less well-known is that when this response is triggered repeatedly, one may lose the ability to feel safe and be unable to return to a relaxed state. In that case, the brain/body emergency response system stays switched on long-term, although it isn't designed to function in that way.

Imagine your brain/body emergency response as a cheetah. It is beautiful, amazing, and perfectly adapted to function with speed and efficiency. Cheetahs can reach speeds of 60 to 70 miles per hour, and they can accelerate to that speed in just 3 seconds! But would you expect a cheetah to run a marathon? No, they are sprinters; they can run that fast for only a few seconds. After a burst of speed, they slow down, rest, and re-fuel. In the same way, our brain/body emergency response is very effective in a brief crisis but destroys physical and emotional health when continuously activated over the long term.

Traumatized people may feel threatened even when they know that they are not in danger. Understanding something with your thinking brain (the cortex) and feeling it as a reality throughout your body are two very different things. Trauma-informed therapy helps people integrate understanding and feeling, begin to repair the damaged threat response system, and restore feelings of safety within the self, the environment, and in relationships.

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