When You Freeze and The Alligator is Behind You

Fight or flight is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is or is perceived as a harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.

However, often when in stressful, frightening situations even when we are feeling attacked, literally, or figuratively… our reaction is to freeze.

When I was a child, my grandparents lived on a lake.

Alligators also lived in this chain of lakes.

One day my parents went out and 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.

A perceived threat to survival… my mother’s fight-or-flight instantly and instinctively kicked in.

Running out the door of the house she yelled out to us, “Johnny and Wendy, come out of the water now!”

My brother being the obedient child he was immediately started going in. I, on the other hand, needed a reason.

“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.”

I hadn’t yet noticed the panic on her face.

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

I instantly started to panic.

My fight or flight did not kick in.

Instead, I froze.

I stood there in my panic, yelling for my mother to help me.

I still stood there frozen as she kept yelling at me to move. I could see both helplessness and strength of will co-existing in the expression on her face.

“Just start swimming! Get in here!”

Eventually, her fight-or-flight empowered me, her insistence that I take action to get myself out of a harmful situation activated my own flight mechanism kicked in.

Adrenaline started to flow through my body.

I started moving, I swam and ran at the same time – making my way toward shore.

With some screaming and panicking, most likely some crying mixed in there.

Both my mother and brother were on shore, waiting and fighting for me, encouraging me to keep moving.

What I appreciate the most and why I share this story is: although my fight-or-flight did not initially kick in, my mother’s did.

Although she couldn’t physically help me; for her to jump in the water and swim out to me would not have been an effective use of time.

I had to save myself.

In this instance, I saved myself primarily because of the strength and power of the people around me.

People who saw the danger I was in and the threat to my survival.

Even when I could not see it myself.

Too many times in life we freeze.

We don’t take flight when we should, and we don’t fight for ourselves when we should.

When we have people around us who are fighting for us when we are stuck in “freeze”… and as long as we are paying attention, eventually our own fight or flight will kick in to get us back to safety.

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