Each of us has an instinctive reaction to perceived danger. Physiologists call this the flight-fight-or-freeze response. When we are in a situation that feels like a threat to our safety, security or life, the primal part of our brains (amygdala aka “lizard brain”) kicks in and triggers our hormones and body into the appropriate response.
In older times, for example, a bear might cross your path while you’re gathering berries and would trigger you to flight (run!), fight (bow & arrow), or freeze (stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you).
Fascinating, I know you must be thinking. Especially since that last time you pondered gathering berries it was at one of those “pick-your-own” berry farms that had all kinds of lovely amenities, like cushioned baskets and farm baked cookies.
But it really is fascinating. Let me tell you why.
Even though you don’t have to forage for food or live in a cave to avoid lions, this doesn’t mean that the same physiological response never happens. In fact, it affects you each and every day because, you see, it isn’t triggered only by bear or lions, but by any perceived harmful event, attack or thread to survival.
Yes, my darling, your body instinctively reacts to all kinds of fear.
We are born into this world with only two fears: falling and loud noises. Every other fear we have is learned by experience or association. Many of these are learned during our childhood, but aren’t limited to what we would categorize as “trauma.”
They extend to our deepest desires to be loved and accepted. These fears come out of the need to belong and the need of a sense of safety.
Recently, I had one of those challenging days where everything seemed bigger than it really was. I’d had to pull some old files that pre-dated my divorce and was flooded with memories of surrounding myself with stuff to assuage pain and perfection to avoid fights. Though I have a hell of a lot of tools in place to help me through those moments, my own version of the freeze response kicked in and I caught myself obsessively clearing every flat space so that the house would look perfect.
You see, a decade ago I would obsessively straighten the house before my ex got home from work so that he wouldn’t yell about what a horrible wife I was, and how I was unable to keep a clean house.
And, despite the fact that I now live a very uncluttered life…and despite the fact that JB would never yell at me, period…I couldn’t focus on a piece of writing I was working on and had to completely clear the stack of magazines and catalogs I had piled on the island in the kitchen and put away every piece of laundry.
We all have these kinds of events in our past and a go-to response as a reaction. They are born out of shame and blame and not feeling as if we fit in. These events happened during our childhood with a parent, a teacher, those girls in middle school, and sometimes in unhealthy relationships.
We often go to these flight-fight-or-freeze responses in an attempt to fit in, be accepted, and be loved. But you, my darling, as you are now, are worthy of love, affection, being accepted, and belonging.
Here are some ways to recognize responses and some tips to manage them.
If You Go To “Flight” Response
I’m personally a master at flight. Though I laughingly call my five years of 200+ days a year on the road my “Gypsy Years,” the fact of the matter is that I was running away from a drama-filled daily life and seeking peace and a sense of safety. This manifested in other ways, too: the urge to go shopping or to leave the house and go to Starbucks for coffee, or go for a run or a drive.
Any kind of action you go to in order to escape is a flight response.
So, what can you do about the flight response?
- Well, if you’re truly in danger situation, run.
- If not, lean into awareness. When things get stressful, do you have an urge to simply walk away (literally or figuratively? Where do you typically want to go? Ask yourself the “why” question until you get to your true answer.
- Create a space in your home that is solely yours. Maybe it’s a room or even a closet. When you want to run, go there first.
- Mediation helps. When our bodies are used to mediating, it’s a great go-to for calm and centering. When the desire to run hits, close your eyes and take a big deep breath. And repeat. And repeat. Because flight is a physiological response, slowing down your heart rate with deep breathing will help.
- Give yourself permission to escape, but do it with awareness. Admit to yourself: yes, I am going to Starbucks now because I really want to run away to somewhere safe (or quiet or peaceful).
- Write about it in your journal. Remind yourself that you are safe and loved. Remind yourself that you are worthy.
- Talk it over with a trusted person: your partner, your friend, your coach. Telling them about the situation when you wanted to run will allow you to release the event and gain some support.
If You Go To “Fight” Response
When you think of fighting, you might think of physical fisticuffs or brandishing a sword, but the fight response can manifest itself in other ways. Though I prefer to avoid conflict, I’m not immune to fighting. It’s the passive-aggressive way you prepare a meal you know your spouse won’t like. The sharp or sarcastic words you toss out in comment.
My go-to response has been flaying myself with that mental whip in my head. The go to voices of the inner critic calling you stupid or weak or anything less than loving.
So, what can you do about the fight response?
- Well, if you’re in a situation where someone is physically harming you, defend yourself.
- Take a big deep breath before you speak. Like with flight, breathing and calming your heart rate will allow you to act with thought instead of reaction.
- If you are a fighter, during calm times, come up with a mantra to repeat to yourself. “Words said in anger still hold truth” or “Actions done in anger, even if regretted, can’t be undone.”
- Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts. You deserve to be treated with kindness and love.
- Allow yourself to feel. Be angry. Be sad. Be frustrated.
- Write a burn letter. Sit with pen and paper and get everything out of your head and then burn (safely) or shred it. As you destroy it, allow yourself to release you hurt.
- Get help. Reach out to your best friend, find therapist or hire a coach. You don’t have to deal with your fears alone.
If You Go To “Freeze” Response
Oh, this is another one I’ve quite familiar with. It manifests itself in the ways we try to blend in (dress like everyone else, etc). It’s seen in the way we retreat internally or into a fantasy world. My childhood response was to sit in a corner of the living room and read a book. My adult response was to dress in lots of black and withdraw into myself as I pretended that I was invisible.
Any way you try to blend into the background or make the energetic space you take up as tiny as possible is like freezing in hopes the bear won’t see us.
So, what can you do about the freeze response?
- If you are near a goose nest and have been noticed, freeze and then carefully walk backwards away from the goose, never losing sight of him. (Why, yes, I have experienced this and know that geese will hiss, bite and attack.)
- Breathe, baby, breathe!
- Practice being seen. Practice being heard. This may be a game you can play with your best friend or an activity you can do with your coach or therapist. In fact, it’s one of the reasons coaching is valuable because it allows us to be heard.
- Buy a power outfit. One that says I’m confident. I deserve to be seen. I am valued.
- Write yourself a permission slip to be seen, heard, and visible. Write in your journal. Re-write inspirational quotes.
When it comes to fear, darling, the first thing to do is to be aware. From personal experience and from working with dozens of clients around fear, I’ve learned that identifying and naming the fear begins to remove the power it has over you.
Then, remember that the instinct to fight, flee, or freeze is literally hard-wired into your brain. Acting on that instinct doesn’t make you a failure, but learning to channel it into a productive response can help make you better able to resist in the future.
I am so very grateful that my days of constantly being in the flight-fight-or-freeze way of living are behind me. I was able to break many of my go-to responses by creating a daily life that feels nurturing, supportive, and loving. Now, when something triggers me, I’m able to recognize what’s happening, breathe and remind myself that I’m safe and I am loved.
And when I catch myself in the middle of a response, I’m more able to laugh about it and admire my clean counter-tops.
What about you? What is your go-to response? What tips do you have when fear triggers a response?