the science of feelings, as illustrated by Hyperbole and a Half

Okay, so I talk all the time about the stress response and what it does to feelings. Well. Allie Brosh has just posted on the internet the most amazing pedagogical device in the history of the earth on for teaching about The Feels. So I’m taking full advantage. Ready?

So we’re monkey’s right? (No, we’re not monkeys, we’re apes, but monkey is a better word, and it’s close enough for jazz – and this whole thing is simplified but close enough.) We’re monkeys who evolved to survive on the savanna of Africa, where we did things like get chased by lions and stuff. We have an evolutionarily adaptive mechanism called The Stress Response Cycle that helps us to cope with lions and other threats. This is how it works:

You brain notices a threat in the environment. It activates a massive flood of adrenaline and cortisol and things, and it does a quick assessment (which is continues, ongoing, until the threat is gone), and puts the threat into one of three general categories:

  1. A threat you are most likely to survive if you run away.

  2. A threat you are most likely to survive if you beat the shit out of it.

  3. A threat you are too slow to run from and too weak to beat up.

And when your brain has made its decision, it uses all that adrenaline and cortisol and things, to make you DO something, and it also happens to cause you to FEEL something too.

For Threat #1, it causes you to try to escape. What emotion goes with trying to escape? Fear. Anything from mild worry to aject terror. This is called “FLIGHT.”

For Threat #2, it causes you to try to beat the shit out of the threat. What emotion goes with trying to beat the shit out of someone? Anger. Anything from mild irritation to blind, slavering rage. This is called “FIGHT.”

For Threat #3, it slams on the brakes and causes you to shut down, like a possum in the road. What emotion goes with this? Numbness. Nothing. Empty. This is called “FREEZE.”

Wwhat happens next is one of two things: EITHER the the lion eats you or whatever the threat is kills you… in which case none of this matters anymore… OR you survive.

Take the example of the lion. What if you get all that adrenaline, your brain goes, “RUN!” and you successfully make it back to your village, where everyone helps you kill the lion and you all eat it for dinner and the next day you reverently and gratefully bury the parts of the carcass you won’t be using for other things? How do you feel then?

Relieved! Joyful! Glad to be alive! You love your friends and family!

That, friends, is the complete stress response cycle.

Now, these days we hardly ever get chased by lions. Lions are an excellent stressor because they are ACUTE: the stressor has a clear beginning, middle, and end. These days our stressors tend to be CHRONIC, with no clear end.

And as a result, we get stuck in incomplete stress response cycles.

When we get stuck in FLIGHT, that can turn into anxiety or panic attacks.

When we get stuck in FIGHT, that can turn into anger management issues, rage.

When we get stuck in FREEZE, that can turn into depression.

Depression is what’s up with Allie, the author of Hyperbole and a Half.

So she’s stuck in freeze. She’s numb, right? Because she’s frozen like a bunny under a bush, waiting for a fox to stop stalking her.

And her friends are being emotion dismissing – which, well intentioned though it may be, is not helpful.

And can actually make things worse, because the depressed person may start to feel guilty or ashamed of not feeling better, even though their FREEZE state is a perfectly legitimate physiological reality.


When you’re in freeze, it seems like your feelings are a deep, dark hole. Bottomless. And you’re stuck forever.

In reality (though people in freeze often have no way of knowing this, and it’s difficult to find motivation to believe it), feelings are tunnels; they’re CYCLES, with a beginning, middle, and end. And you have to go all the way through the tunnel, through the cycle, to get to the other side of it.

But people get stuck in freeze.

And other people have no idea how to help, because there is no “thing you can do” to get out of freeze.

If you’re a bunny hiding under a bush, frozen because a fox is out there, what will get you out of freeze?

The fox going away.

In this case, the fox is in Allie’s own brain.

 So what does she need? What will help?

What Allie needed – what depressed folks often need – is just someone to sit on the floor with her and grieve for the dead fish.

Because that would help her to unlock, to move through the tunnel. Because grief is a feeling, not numbness. In fact, even her annoyance that no one could understand was a feeling, not numbness, so it’s a good start.

But instead, Allie got more and more stuck until eventually she didn’t know why to be alive anymore. And when you tell people you don’t know why to be alive anymore, they have feelings. And when you’re stuck in freeze, Other People’s Feelings are THE WORST. And you’ll do pretty much whatever to make it stop.

So she went to the doctor. Got some drugs. Got some therapy.

And started to unlock from FREEZE. Which is similar to thawing your hands when you come in from shoveling snow. It hurts.

A difficulty with major depression is that it’s rare to go from FREEZE to HAPPY without going through some FIGHT or FLIGHT first. Your body needs to COMPLETE interrupted stress response(s) that the FREEZE has kept frozen for all this time.

Allie’s body went to FIGHT. And she hated everything. And she LET HERSELF hate everything, which is the key! She didn’t try not to hate things.


And when she got to the end of the FIGHT, her body went to GRIEF, which I haven’t talked about here but it’s related to this. Basically your body has to let go of what it was holding onto for a long time, in order to create space for the new thing.

And your job is just let it happen. Which can be uncomfortable.

As Allie unlocked from FREEZE, as she completed some of the accumulated incomplete stress response cycles, her physiology changed. It cleared out space.

And when you clear out all the accumulated stress crap, you create space… for feelings!




She followed/is following the process exactly. People oscillate around a recovery point for a long time, while their body/brain practices complete stress response cycles. And eventually it becomes second nature, and your central nervous system retunes itself to a more pleasure-attuned key.

I wish someone had explained all this to Allie sometime early on in the process.

Or maybe someone did, and that’s how she can tell the story, explain the process, with such exactness and precision. But I don’t think so, somehow. I think she had to find her own way through it without understanding it as she went.

Not that understanding make it easier, exactly – in the same way that knowing how and why and when your hands will thaw doesn’t make warming them after shoveling snow hurt less – but I’ve found that my students, anyway, benefit from knowing that the path they’re walking is a trail, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the more you practice walking all the way through, the better you get at it. It helps you to ALLOW the whole process, the way you allow your hands to thaw, without wondering if you’re doing it right.

But y’all can benefit from the combined storytelling chops of Ms Brosh and the Power of Science.