Saying that someone freaked out is another way of saying they had an unexpected loss of composure or control of their emotions. Also known as “flipping our lid,” “blowing our mind” and”going bananas,” “freaked out” describes an overwhelmed nervous system that is unable to process an experience in a timely matter. A freak-out episode means losing our “normal” self and having a moment of going crazy due to some experience of extreme anxiety, anger, fear or other momentarily extreme stress.
Freak out episodes often make anxious people feel even more anxious about losing control. They worry about having something trigger them so quickly that they begin behaving strangely–running away, hiding, becoming aggressive, or yelling profanities. These rapid-onset emotionally-escalated behaviors truly are out of conscious control, and difficult to stop until they’ve run their course.
Freak Out Triggers, Stimulus & Stressors
A freak-out incident typically erupts in a nano-second, and without any warning because the unconscious mind has identified something that makes a person feel anxious and unsafe. Often the “something” is both small and subtle–a certain sound or smell, a person’s facial expression, a certain tone of voice, another person’s body language or a specific kind of relational dynamic such as feeling like a victim. These subtle cues are commonly known as “triggers,” and are associated with unresolved traumatic memories and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
A freak-out trigger suddenly causes different parts of a person’s body and brain to release a series of images, feelings, sensory messages that literally flood the brain stem, and cause the autonomic nervous system to go into shock, trauma or stress reactions. These unconscious reactions cause people’s awareness to leave present time. They regress, their awareness shifts into a past memory or reality. They may be dissociated and not in their body. Here’s Dan Siegel explaining what happens during a freak out experience.
It’s Complicated . . .
So freaking out is a complex MindBody experience that is caused by unresolved trauma from the past, and an indicator of PTSD. It’s not possible to predict or control PTSD freak outs . . . at least not without becoming informed about trauma and learning some tools that help make freak out experiences conscious. We’ll talk about effective trauma-modulating tools in another post.