Fight Flight Freeze, Part 1

Stress is a natural response to perceived threat. You can’t just think your way out of it.

Why do you dread seeing certain people? How often do your worries keep you awake at night, or prevent you from concentrating? And don’t you hate the people who tell you to take some time out and “just relax”. If only it were that easy. If only you could “just relax”.

When you suffer from stress, there’s no “just” about it. You’ve probably tried lots of ways to “just relax”, and none of them work. That’s because stress is as much physical as it is mental, and it is a natural reaction to something that we perceive as being dangerous. Human beings and many animals have three particular ways to respond to danger: We go into a kind of “emergency mode”, where we get ready to fight, take flight or we freeze. Before civilization, the fight, flight and freeze responses were very effective at keeping us alive in the face of real, physical threats. When the threat went away, we would calm down and our bodies would stop reacting in emergency mode.

The “fight” and “flight” responses get the body ready to fight off the attacker or run away. To do this, the brain releases chemicals which increase the heart rate, make the perception more alert and get the muscles ready for action. That’s why when you suddenly get scared, your heart pounds, your body starts trembling and afterwards you can sometimes remember every detail of what happened.

On the other hand, the “freeze” response is a last resort – it’s used when “flight” and “flight” won’t work. It’s the reason why some animals go completely still when disturbed: it increases the chance that the predator will overlook them and go away. When you experience the “freeze” response to a situation, your brain partially shuts down and your mind just “goes blank” – often at a crucial moment, when you really need to think clearly. It seems cruel that our brains decide to start shutting down when we need them the most, but that’s just the way we’ve evolved over the millions of years before civilizations arose.

Nowadays, the threats we face are more abstract: job insecurity, a bullying boss, too much work, too many personal demands, debt, etc. Unfortunately, our physiology hasn’t moved on since prehistoric times and we still respond with fight, flight or freeze. This is a problem because modern threats are persistent: the demanding boss won’t just disappear, creditors won’t stop sending demands, job insecurity won’t just magically vanish. As a result, you get stuck in a never-ending cycle of fight, flight or freeze responses to persistent threats. That cycle can be described with one word: stress.

The problem with stress is that it leads to more stress – it’s a self-sustaining emergency response to persistently bad situations. You can’t “just relax” because stress is the result of a natural, built-in physiological mechanism. It’s the way your body is “hard-wired” to respond to threats.

So, how can you break the stress cycle? The solution lies in changing the way you perceive your situation. Two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “People are disturbed not by things, but by the view that they take of them”. That is as true today as it was then. In the second part of this article, I will introduce some simple techniques that you can use to begin to change your view of the things that disturb you.

9th June 2015