Fight or Flight
...or is there another option?

We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight” reflex – our “reptilian” brain’s response to fear.

Less known is the version that adds “freeze” to the mix – although if you think about it for a second or two you can probably think of a few times in your life when your response was to freeze, rather than either fighting or fleeing.

What if there was another option?

Fortunately there is, and you sometimes do it often even if you don’t give yourself proper credit it for it.

Sometimes, even when your knees are knocking, your palms are sweating and your pulse is racing, you neither fight, flee of freeze.

Instead, you stand and Face it.


fight_or_fligh

In this diagram the four options are bounded by another four terms, which are referring to what happens relationally. So for example if you are either fighting, or facing the threat/challenge, then you have opted to engage with whatever is facing you. Fighting is a combination of engaging and repelling, while fleeing combines repelling and disengaging. More about this under the relevant sections below.


When you are in a stressful situation – let’s say you have something really critical on at work and everything is riding on your performance – your unconscious is likely to be running a version of the fight or flight programme.

Depending on the specifics of the situation, and of your learned responses, you may by now be:

  • all guns blazing and ready to beat the challenge (fight);
  • hiding in the toilet hoping no one notices your absence (flight)
  • frozen in terror and unable to perform (freezing)

Rather like this.

fight_or_flight

Alternatively, you may have engaged your conscious mind, and be preparing to Face It.

Anne Dale, leader of Stress Management course for 20+ years, identifies this as one of the critical choice points for effectively managing stress.

She points out that it’s entirely possible, in the split seconds available to decide whether to fight, flee or freeze, that our system may not choose the best option, like our bunny friend above – for whom freezing is sometimes a good option, but definitely not always!

Once you have got over the initial shock of the threat in front of you, whatever that may be, more often than not fight or flight or freezing are not going to be appropriate responses.


fight_or_flight


Sometimes fight or flight are *exactly* the right choices, of course.

If there actually is a wild animal/train/landslide bearing down on you, please feel free to ignore anything you read here and follow your instincts – neither this author nor this website accept any responsibility for what might happen....


Although sometimes we might literally fight, run away or get stopped in our tracks, Anne points out that in reality actual fight or flight are usually not appropriate. Instead we usually repress those primitive urges and the fighting/fleeing/freezing happens inside psychologically instead.

Fight

In relational terms (see the diagram above), when you choose to fight you are both engaging and attempting to repel the threat or challenge - to make it go away by taking it on. In some circumstances, this is going to be the correct option, but as with many unconscious choices we make about our behaviour, if is our only option, it can become counter-productive.

For example, if you are someone with a tendency to fight, it may be that when the pressure is on that you argue with people and maybe even get into a “must win at all costs” mode.

While this can be helpful in gaining your short term goals, it’s unlikely in the long term to do much good for your health, your relationships, and possibly your career – although undoubtedly there are some fields where being a fighter might be an advantage.

Of course, fighting your way through challenges is not necessarily stressful for everyone; some people may find it genuinely energizing, enabling them to find productive and constructive outcomes.

However, I would hazard a guess that for these people, the instinctive drive to fight is at least partly tempered and managed by some conscious control and strategizing to make it work positively. Otherwise rates of stress-related health problems would be even higher than they are.

But it may be that you repeatedly find yourself either on the attack or the defensive and fighting with people it might be better to co-operate with, and wasting time, energy and goodwill in the process.

Worse, you might actually be changing your body’s physiology because you are in a state of stress in ways that can end up being damaging.

If you find you are doing this in your relationships, family or work relationships, it might be time to consider doing something to reduce your stress.

Flight

The psychological equivalent of “fleeing” could manifest in all sorts of varied ways – after all we human beings are endlessly creative! When you choose to flee you are disengaging and repelling - attempting to deal with the threat or challenge by getting yourself safely away from it.

You might be prone to flight as a response to stress if you habitually:

  • drink or take drugs to unwind;

  • disappear to the golf course/gym/pub whenever your partner says they want to talk;

  • immerse yourself in work to avoid family challenges – or vice versa

  • .. or do just about anything that provides you with a comfortable altered state in preference to dealing with the more uncomfortable feelings provoked by the stressful thing.

I even know one man who falls asleep whenever there is an argument in his household, which may seem like a rather extreme version of avoiding challenges by taking flight, but it does have the effect of taking him out of the immediate “danger”.

Another, rather complex set of unconscious strategies to avoid intolerable stressors is depression, which can be seen as a form of taking flight from the world.

As with other responses to stress, depression that becomes chronic can lead to physiological changes that then further lower the mood, leading to a vicious circle that can be hard to break.

Freeze

Freezing may look somewhat similar to fleeing, for example if we clam up and find ourselves unable to discuss the conflict in our relationship, or become a gibbering wreck when called upon to stand up and deliver a speech or presentation.

Generally people will shift out of this state within seconds or at most a few minutes, but if it persists it could become a serious problem.

Referring to the diagram above, if freezing is your default mode under stress then you are disengaging, but still attracting the threat, i.e. not making any attempt to make it go away. Sometimes this might work, but many times it won't - like the rabbit, you'll get run over by the oncoming car, if only metaphorically.

...or Face It?

So what about the “Face it” option?

As Anne tells us, it is possible to step off the treadmill of an unhelpful conditioned response at any point.

This moves us into dealing with the issue instead of fighting it (or running away, or freezing up completely).

This option is the one that makes the difference between being in a persistently stressed state – and probably not being terribly effective at what we are trying to do, either – and dealing with the situation we find ourselves in.

Anne emphasizes the benefits of developing flexibility in our responses to stressful situations, as this gives us many more options than the limited choice of fight or flight – or freeze.

Okay.... sounds simple? Well, maybe; but it's not necessarily easy. If you want to change your conditioned response to stress it's going to take some focus and some work.

Ideally, you would do this with some compassionate support, either from a friend, a therapist, or a group. There are a wide variety of approaches to this type of personal change, some of which you might try include:


Come and visit The Spring often as we add more information about many approaches to positive personal growth. And if you know of other ways to deal with Fight or Flight issues that you'd like to share, please do contact me using the form below.


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