Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fix

“If anyone on the verge of action should judge himself according to the outcome, he would never begin.”
                                                                      ― Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

     Most people are aware of the fight or flight response that people may have to a stressful event. An animal perceives a threat to its safety and must decide: Can I fight this threat or can I outrun it? I use the term "decide" here to describe the automatic process of the amygdala and hippocampus (click here for more). There's no conscious decision making going on. Even a bunny will attack if there are no means of escape.

     Then, a few years after I graduated high school, the freeze response was added to the mix. This is when the amygdala and hippocampus go, "uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" and nothing happens. Technically this is a survival response. It can work for prey animals with effective camouflage; like deer. However, it can also be an abysmal survival mechanism when a deer sees two headlights bearing down on it and it thinks, "uhhhhhhh, I'm gonna go ahead and not move then the car won't see me standing in the middle of the road and it won't try to eat me". We've all heard/seen the outcome of that particular strategy played out. All animals (and humans) have all three of these responses programmed at a genetic level.

     Humbly, I would like to add a fourth option. Fight, flight, and freeze are all processed in similar areas of the brain. None of them rely heavily on the frontal lobe and/or the prefrontal cortex where our higher level reasoning and processing occurs. In fact, humans have a very difficult time calming their anger when these areas are not engaged (click here for more info). Which got me to thinking: what if we get really stressed and are able to override our natural reactive responses (fight, flight, freeze) and engage our higher level thinking processes (fix)? This would in no way be reflexive; it would require training and intentionality and a level of self-control that, if I'm being honest, I don't really have. Still, the possibility is there for a fourth response to a stressful event: Fix.

     In truth, when faced with a stressful situation our primary/reactive responses will remain the same: Fight/flight/freeze. However, we can exercise a secondary/active response: Fix. Fixing a situation necessarily requires the activation of the higher thinking/limbic areas of the brain. This cannot easily happen when people are highly stressed or threatened. The irony, then, lies in the fact that until a stressful situation is corrected or until the threat is has been alleviated, it is very difficult if not impossible, for us to really think about the situation we actually need to fix.

     All is not lost. We can learn how to accept the fear which triggers our primary responses, acknowledge it, and then begin to process it. Some times this takes years of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes before we are able to begin really processing our fear. It is all worth it. Until we process the fear, our options will be limited to the reactions of flight/fight/freeze. We will run from healthy relationships, we will fight those who provide aid and support, and we will freeze in the face of new threats. But, when our fear is identified, when it is named and recognized for the projection it has always been, it becomes smaller and less threatening, and this allows us to grow. Once we process our fear, we add a fourth option to our repertoire: Fix. Having the option to fix empowers us, broadens our horizons, and allows us to live an authentic life. Fixing is active, fighting/flying/or freezing is reactive. If you feel out of control of your emotions, your life, or your relationships, ask yourself how you respond to threats. Are you reactive or active? Empowered or threatened? Prey or predator? If you do not feel in control, find someone to help you figure out the source of fear which holds you back and begin to be a fixer.

Flight, Freeze, Fight, & Fix
(C) Nathan D. Croy, 2014