Healthy stress behaviour: fight, flight and freeze
Our brain is an eminent threat detector giving us a fighting chance to perceive and survive danger. It powers us up to fight, flight or freeze. Sigh! Are you bored of reading this same old same old? You are quite right to be – when talking about stress, these three words roll too easily off our tongue. Our ability to talk about them gives us the false impression that we are now consciously aware of them. Some of us might go so far as to believe that we can – even should be able to – rule them. Yet just like breathing or thinking, just like the beating of our heart or the blushing of our cheeks, these processes are automatic. The stress response is our body’s reaction to an emergency, happening within seconds and without our conscious assistance, cooperation or acceptance.
And with good reason.
Imagine you are crossing the road with a car racing towards you. Is this really the time to discuss whether you want to be a fighter, an escapee or a frozen hare?
No? Didn’t think so.
Yet, when working with clients, and in particular within the business world, I often hear “I do not feel stressed, I am not the anxious type, nothing easily threatens me.” Whilst I am interested in and respectful of my client’s self-image, what they are proclaiming is that their brain – the finest tuned threat detector ever – has stopped working. That they’ve managed to turn it off.
No can do:
We would not survive. And the person who is so energetically telling me not to bother exploring their stress would be a walking dead.
Our body does what it does best.
It keeps us alive, at all costs, with or without our approval. I fear we often confuse mind, brain and body as being distinct entities which, depending on the epistemological framework we adhere to, rule over each other. The truth seems is much more complicated. That our behaviour stems from the intricate interplay between our body, mind and brain which, to make things even more complicated, are in a permanent state of relationship with the various and ever-changing environments we find ourselves in.
What does this mean in the realms of stress?
Well, we all have the internal physiological processes of stress. And we each have various external reactive behaviours: the fight, flight and freeze responses (forgive the repetition).
Flight, fight and freeze are innate behaviours. But which one is used and when? This is different across species and it depends on the situation or environment we are in. Scientists debate the categorising of these responses: whether they are active (flight, fight) or suppressed behaviours (freeze). In his book The psychology of fear and stress, Gray (1971) suggested that we use freezing during the anticipation of danger. Yet when we are right in the danger zone we escape or fight.
Whilst this seems to be an appealing explanation it might not be the end of the debate. After all, some animals freeze when encountering, rather than only when anticipating, danger – and do so very successfully in terms of their survival.
Keep in mind that stress is a physiological process. One that unfolds under our conscious radar, regardless of our self-image. Now the question arises – what to do with all this “ready to go” energy?