“Fight or Flight” is a well known concept – the idea that we each respond to danger or trauma in a specific way. Something I’ve noticed is that many of us do not know about the final three options:
I wanted to discuss a little about my own experiences with this model.
We’ve all been in that situation where someone riles you up so much that you become incredibly combative or defensive, leading to verbally or physically fighting in a situation. Think about a small child who has a toy stolen from them by another child. This creates stress, and that toddler pushes the other over, taking the toy back. The action isn’t appropriate, but can be explained by the stress that happened before.
The fight instinct is just that – a response to a trauma or stressor. There are ways to overcome this way of responding, from counselling to anger management programmes. Understanding what creates such a stressor can help you to take control of your behaviours and reactions.
Sometimes called “flee”, flight essentially means that we get out of the situation as quickly as possible. This can be both a healthy and an unhealthy response. For example, you’re in an argument with a loved one, and your stress levels are rising. You decided to leave the situation to calm down. Whilst this is a “flee” response, you are doing so to come back to the discussion later (this is my common reaction to a stressful situation).
However, it is completely possible that this becomes an avoidant behaviour, leading to an individual running away from any stressful situation. It can mean that people become conflict-avoidant, unable to stand their ground in a stressful situation.
Much like “Fight”, there are ways that you can turn this into a healthy way of handling things. For example, creating a shared language with your loved ones so that they know that you are taking a “time out” when you are becoming too stressed to engage. Making sure that you come back to the conversation later when things have calmed down.
A very common reaction to a situation that puts you at risk of actual harm is the “Freeze” response. This is where your body goes tense, still and generally silent. You may feel numb to your experiences, or for longer term reactions, you may be going through the motions, but not taking in your general surroundings.
Think of the times when you have experienced “stage fright” when you took part in school performances or presentations. We’ve probably all experienced mild forms of “Freeze” before, but for some people it can be very extreme. Accessing help to ease anxiety and fear can help break this pattern – support such as therapy can make a huge difference.
This could be seen as a more extreme version of “Freeze” – your whole system (both mental and physical processes) will become unresponsive, and in extreme circumstances, can lead to loss of consciousness. This is because the body has become so paralysed by fear and stress that the body and mind needs to protect itself.
To understand this more, consider a Possum who feels that it is in danger from a predator. The animal will “play possum” to reduce the risk to itself as running or fighting would actually make things more dangerous.
This is the response that suggests someone is complying with a situation. This is especially common in people that have experienced abuse for a long time, and so they have learnt to go along with things as it is safer than fighting back. You may be seen as a “people-pleaser” how shows kindness and compassion no matter how badly you are being treated. This has historically been my pattern of behaviour – and has required therapy and support from my loved ones to do things differently.
All of these responses to stressors can be healthy and unhealthy. Your trauma responses are there to protect you, and have probably done a ‘good job’ for quite some time. If, however, your reactions are creating distress for yourself or others, then reaching out to a qualified therapist may be a good option for you. This is where you can explore your patterns and reactions in a safe environment, and attempt to break the cycle that you might find yourself in.
You can get in touch with me to discuss your needs as a potential client by visiting my contact page and filling in the form.