We hear all the time about fight, flight or freeze mode. Anxiety, depression, our relationships, our jobs, the news; all have the potential to mobilize us (fight or flight) or immobilize us (freeze). I am not sure the awareness we now have of these states, serves us. I, for one, could do with a little less awareness of my heart rate and propensity to freeze when all eyes turn toward me within a group of strangers.
A story on The Moth (storytelling program located around the U.S. and a podcast), got me thinking about possibilities beyond fight, flight or freeze. A woman on The Moth told of how helpless and paralyzed she was when she was a young girl and her father beat her with his fists. He would walk away whistling after the beating and she would stand frozen.
Later, as a young woman, she found herself on a Greyhound bus sitting next to another young woman from a foreign country. Behind them was a scary drunk man, who harassed them for half of their bus ride. He swore at them. He tried to touch them. He went to the bathroom with the door open. Finally, the young foreign woman, whose first language was not English, shouted at the drunk, “You are a bad man! Leave us alone!” And he did, for a while. Eventually, both women stood up to the obnoxious man. The whole bus benefited from the resulting peace.
The woman who froze when her dad beat her, now realized there was another angle or option to fight, flight or freeze. It was solidarity. Joining forces with another person, gives us strength and helps us survive. Having a teammate keeps our nervous system stable. We don’t have to fight, nor do we feel so afraid that we freeze. We can use our voices and spare our body the big reactions.
Drop the rope
Another alternative to fight, flight or freeze is acceptance. I don’t mean to give up, resign to or tolerate painful suffering. I mean to feel the anxiety, fear, conflict, etc. and keep on living a vibrant life. In the tug-o-war between our thoughts and our reactions, we drop the rope.
Obviously, if you experience dangerous physical abuse every day, I don’t mean to live with it and keep on smelling the roses. That kind of abuse evokes subconscious reactions (fight, flight, freeze) and requires action. Seek help outside of yourself. As a girl, the woman in the story could not help but freeze when her father hit her. She was helpless. But as a woman, she had the option to allow her abusive history and its memories to exist without holding her back from a creative, vibrant life.
In the way or on the way
If you hate your job and you tell yourself ever day, “I hate this job. I’m stuck in it. My boss makes me so nervous”, there is an alternative to letting your heart pound, feeling Sunday night dread and withdrawing into Netflix or video games.
The alternative is to allow the anxiety or dread and move forward to greater engagement and vitality. In the name of meaning and fulfillment, we can experience anxiety. The anxiety isn’t IN the way of our fulfillment. It is ON the way. I think Dr. John Demartini said that, but I’m not 100% sure.
What makes our life engaging? What do we value that could help us get away from mental management and into focused living?
Avoidance is not the answer
When we allow worry or fear to narrow our lives, we do not experience joy or vitality. For example, if we let our current job anxiety make us think we can not do another job, we might not even look for something better. We assume we are stuck with this lousy job because our negative thoughts limit us. Resisting something only amplifies it.
It is also important to remember the anxiety, fight, flight or freeze modes are not us. They are feelings and bodily reactions we experience. To move toward an engaging and meaningful life we have to see the suffering as outside of us.
Everyone experiences fear, pain, nervousness. It is a part of life. What is optional is how we react to it and how we let ourselves suffer. For example, we can say “I’m depressed” or we can say “I’m having a lot of negative thoughts that make me feel tired.” The second option keeps us separate from our thoughts. That distance allows us to see our depression as something we experience rather than who we are. We can experience negative thoughts or feelings and still engage with the world.
We might still fight, flee or freeze
We don’t have to fix all of our problems before we live. Even if we find ourselves in fight, flight or freeze mode (they are subconscious, involuntary reactions), we can still work toward a life of meaning and engagement. We can observe those states of being, stop avoiding the difficult feelings/ thoughts, form alliances with others and stay living. Drop the rope of suffering and focus on the living.
When do you fight, flee or freeze? How could a value or something meaningful pull you out of those states?
** Images via Pixabay