Fight or Flight, What About When We Freeze?

Defining the phenomenon

Fight or flight is defined as an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or to flee1. Wikipedia says the fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a “perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” Fight or Flight, what about when we freeze?

I think about this frequently because I think there’s more to it than this, it is not this black-and-white.

Often when in stressful, frightening situations, or feeling attacked, when we feel there is a threat to our survival our reaction is to freeze.

There are animals in the animal Kingdom whose defense mechanism is to freeze or to play dead. This is their protection from an attacker, perceived attacker, or threat to their survival.

My Observation

I believe when feeling attacked, stressed, in the presence of a harmful event, or feeling a threat to our survival, as humans our reaction can be to freeze. The defense mechanism of fight-or-flight does not kick in.

The definition of fight-or-flight includes “…perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival”.

This can mean so many things.

Threat to survival… what is your definition of survival?

Is it just about staying alive, or does it include actually living a life?

Then, what does living a life mean to you?

How do you Define Abuse?

I think of people in abusive relationships, and abuse doesn’t have to mean black eyes and broken bones. To me, any level of being mistreated or neglected is considered abusive. For the sake of this article, that is what I am referring to when I use the word abuse. I consider this being under attack, this creates stress and threatens survival.

There are endless stories of people in careers or other situations that make them unhappy.

Using my definition, these are all threats to survival.

In so many of these instances, we find people frozen – in jobs, careers, or relationships that don’t bring them joy.  When our instincts don’t kick in, hopefully, there are people around us to assist.

Once at the Lake

When I was a child, my grandparents lived on a lake. Alligators also lived in this chain of lakes. On this particular day my parents went out, I can’t remember where, but the adults in the house let my brother and I go swimming in the lake. I would guess we were 6 and 7 years old, maybe 7 and 8.

When my parents arrived back home, they asked where we were. They were told we were in the lake swimming. It quickly became obvious that nobody was outside with us and my mother ran outside.

A perceived threat to survival… her fight-or-flight instinctively and instantly kicked in.

Fighting On My Behalf

Running out the door of the house she yelled to us, “Johnny and Wendy, come out of the water now!” My brother being the obedient child immediately started going in. I, on the other hand, needed a reason. I yelled back at my mother, “Why, we just got in?” I think I even said something along the lines of, “I am not getting out until you give me a reason.”

Brat.

At this point, I hadn’t yet noticed the panic on her face.

It wasn’t until she said, “Because the alligator is right behind you!” that I noticed it.

Of course, I instantly started to panic as well.

Fight or flight did not kick in.

I froze.

I stood there frozen yelling for my mother to help me. Turning around and seeing the alligator swimming right towards me still did not help my fight-or-flight kick in.

I still stood there frozen. She kept yelling at me “Just start swimming! Get in here!”

Eventually, her fight-or-flight adrenaline empowered me, and my flight mechanism kicked in. With the alligator still approaching, I started moving, I swam/ran towards shore. Once on shore my mother, brother, and I ran into the house to safety.

My realization

What I appreciate the most from this story is although my fight-or-flight did not kick in, hers did. Although she couldn’t physically help me; for her to jump in the water, swim out to me, and get me would not have been an effective use of time.

I had to save myself.

This story is important because too many times we freeze. I think too many times we don’t flee when we should, and we don’t fight for ourselves when we should.

We just freeze.

What happens?

Let’s go through the process. When we are under attack by a predator and our survival is threatened here is what our body does:

  • Our heart beats faster, this helps oxygenate our major muscles.
  • We breathe faster to help with oxygen circulation, especially in our bloodstream.
  • Our blood thickens to help with clotting – preparing for physical injury
  • Our pupils dilate to help us see better while increasing our peripheral vision so we can see more of our surroundings.
  • Our hearing becomes sharper and more focused.
  • Our body temperature changes, we either become hot and sweaty or cold, we might even get goosebumps. Our extremities might get cold as a reaction to more blood flow to our muscles.
  • Our tolerance for pain increases to protect us from feeling any physical blow to our body.

When we freeze it’s our parasympathetic nervous system that kicks in instead. All the same physiological changes can still happen; however, our actual fight-or-flight is delayed. During this frozen state, our body stiffens up and we might even hold our breath. Ideally, it is a temporary pause that leads to fight-or-flight.

Ideally. But sometimes we continue to remain frozen, maybe because we are not seeing the imminent threat, there is no reason to fight or take flight.

Hard to Recognize the Threat

It can be hard to recognize when we are harming ourselves by staying in stressful or abusive situations. Especially when it comes to relationships or careers, we might not want to admit to ourselves the reality of our situation. Probably because there’s a payoff. A paycheck, or the perceived comfort of not being alone, or not wanting to lose a friendship. When we are in it, it can be hard to see the danger or threat to our survival.  We might even allow mental, physical, and emotional abuse to occur because we do not consider the attacker a predator. We might not even realize we are under attack.

But they are predators, and that is being under attack. And survival is in jeopardy.

People to Assist

When we find ourselves freezing and not moving or making headway it is because we are not helping ourselves. Perhaps we are not recognizing our situation for what it really is. When we are in dangerous, stressful, or harmful situations, I hope there are people in our lives who are fighting for us. People who are standing on the shore yelling for us to move, yelling for us to make some sort of progress to get ourselves to safety.

The fight or flight reaction to a stressful situation may not kick in for us and freeze becomes the response. When there is somebody around us fighting and begging us to take flight and giving us the tools to do so, we are more likely to survive, ultimately, we will unfreeze. If we do not have this support system, we could stay in freeze mode much longer – maybe frozen forever. When we are on our own and frozen, hopefully, this is just a temporary pause to gather strength for a more effective fight-or-flight response.

Importance of Trusted Allies

It is important to surround ourselves with people we trust, and people we know will help us when we’re in dangerous situations. Perhaps they will recognize the danger we are in before we do. We need people who will help us fight for our lives, our sanity, and our happiness. People who will help us take flight when we can barely move.

The Dangers of Not Paying Attention

If we don’t recognize and identify predators as such and don’t acknowledge when we are in a stressful situation, that in itself is threatening our survival. The lack of paying attention to negative situations when we are in them and the inability to recognize when someone is not treating us the way we deserve to be treated is threatening to our survival. When we don’t take help and we don’t fight or flee, and we stay frozen we allow ourselves to stay under attack and we live in a perpetual state that threatens our survival. This will affect our health and it will most certainly affect our happiness. Paying attention and being truly aware of our surroundings is key.

An Active Participant in Your Own Abuse

I always tell people “Do not be an active participant in your own abuse.” So many times, we allow people to mistreat us. We put ourselves in situations that are not feeding our spirit. We justify the situation – like receiving a paycheck, not being alone, or not wanting to lose a friendship. We might even convince ourselves the situation isn’t bad, so we stay. The pain might not be enough to outweigh the fear yet. Plus, fighting or flying is not always easy. Remaining an active participant in our own abusive situation somehow becomes the easier choice; a less frightening place to be.  Probably because we convince ourselves it is not threatening our survival. We are convinced we are fine.

Reflections

If my mom wasn’t there that day fighting on my behalf and inflicting her will of fight or flight on me causing me to unfreeze and flight to take place, who knows what may have happened.

Think about your own life, are you frozen? Maybe you don’t realize it.

Is your job or relationship feeding your spirit or sucking the life out of you?

If it is sucking the life out of you, then it’s probably abusive on some level. Therefore, it is most definitely threatening your survival.

Are you ignoring all the signs? Are you staying frozen when you should be fighting or flying? Are people around you giving you the tools and you are resisting them?

What is your definition of survival? Is happiness a component?

This is your life, are you who you want to be? Are you where you want to be? What’s stopping you?

In all the situations in your life, ask yourself: “Is this feeding my spirit, or sucking the life out of me?” The answer to this question will help you know if you should fight or take flight.

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