FLIGHT, FIGHT or FREEZE – Stress and anxiety
Why we act how we act and what we can do about it.
Stress and anxious feelings are common and normal. Sometime we need emotions like fear to keep us safe. They happen when we feel under pressure and usually go away once the stressful situation is no longer present.
Anxiety happens when we anticipate a threat. We often experience it physically. Once the danger goes our, anxiety subsides. The important point to remember is that, in themselves, these difficult and common emotions such as fear or anger are not the enemy. It is how we react to them, or not, that can become harmful. Often in the presence of anger or fear, our lower brain is in charge. This is where the fight/flight/freeze response originates and it is responsible for maintaining our survival in the face of real danger or threat.
Problems arise when people can get stuck in their anxiety. This is not their fault. The “fight, flight or freeze” reflex is part of the way we have evolved. When this happens our amygdala, which is an almond sized and shaped part in the middle of our brain, is activated. Its job is to get us ready to fight, flee or freeze. It alerts us to threats (real or imagined or predicted) and gets us ready to act whenever we are fearful for our survival or feel threatened in some way personally (and that can be a threat to our self-concept, for example someone calling us names, as much as some external event or activity.)
So, we might be in a situation where we perceive danger. For example, perhaps once we were bitten by a dog and now we react with our automatic sympathetic ‘flight, fight or freeze’ reaction every time we see a dog, even a golden retriever that is most likely to just want to lick us not bite us.
In that situation, our body reacts first and then our thoughts tell us things and unless we are aware we can believe our thoughts are true. This can lead to becoming overwhelmed. The more we go over the scary or angry story, the more anger or fear we continue to feel and then we get caught up in reactivity.
Once our ‘flight, fight, freeze’ reaction has been triggered we may not be able to think clearly. We will want to hide or flee or perhaps fight. We store these reactions as memories. When we predict something similar is going to happen, it is like we go to our “library” of reactions and choose the book/chapter that says: “all dogs are dangerous and will bite you” and our mind and body believes there is a real threat (even though there is not) and so we ‘flight, fight or freeze’. We can “act, feel and imagine without recognition of past experience and present reality” Seigel Daniel (1999). The Developing Mind
Our brain is continually predicting what is safe and what is not. Some people can have anxiety out of proportion to the actual danger. Our rational mind knows this but our survival mechanism activates and acts as if the danger is real. .
It causes a reaction, which is helpful if we are really in danger.
- Our heart rate and respiration go up and
- Our muscles tense up so we are ready to fight or flee
- Our sweat glands let down.
- We can feel nauseous or dizzy.
- We release adrenaline and cortisol and norephedrine into our blood stream and we are then ready to defend ourselves against the perceived threat.
The problem is that it’s not helpful to be in this state when the threat is not real. However, when we are in fear mode we are in an emotional reaction to a perceived threat. All this can happen at an unconscious level. This is all completely understandable as we are trying to predict any danger so we can survive.
It becomes a problem if we can get caught up in negative looping thoughts. Our evolutionary reaction and our ‘negativity bias’ and even our ‘confirmation bias’ can keep us stuck. We’ll talk about both of those ideas a little later.
Because as humans we are good at thinking and ruminating and predicting, we can continue to bring in worries from the past and concerns about the future beyond when it is actually helpful. Therefore we can get stuck in looping thoughts which reinforces anxiety.
Even though our predictions are not based in reality, our mind and body are busy believing the danger is real. We have evolved to ensure we survive, so running away and asking questions later can be very conducive to staying alive and passing on our genes to our offspring. Our ancestors who stayed and enjoyed the sunset even as the lion got ready to pounce probably didn’t live to tell the story or pass on their genes.
That’s why, when we sense something is of danger, we go into ‘fright, flight or freeze’ reaction mode.
Unfortunately, we are not like a deer. If a lion stalks a deer, the deer runs away and if it gets away it just happily goes back to grazing. We humans are not quite so good at going back to grazing. We can end up thinking too much even after the “danger” has passed. The next time we are out in the jungle we worry there might be a lion. Deers don’t worry about the lion, unless it is actually there.
That’s why we need ways to settle ourselves. And it isn’t only the thought or reality of lions of course that tips us into “flight, fight or freeze”. We can go into ‘flight, fight freeze’ before an exam or if we think the teacher is going to reprimand us or if we are about to deliver a speech. We pull in thoughts from the past or worry about the future and our body gets ready to act just in case our false predictions come true.
The MORE than MINDFULNESS program teaches students about our “flight, fight, freeze” reaction and also how we can settle and soothe ourselves.