Fight or flight

Of course, fight or flight are not the only responses people have to immediate threat. I find myself freezing. Yet the common phrase for primitive responses to physical danger is “fight or flight”, and this moulds our understanding of those responses. If that is the phrase I know, my different way of responding merely confuses me. I don’t have the words to describe it, so I don’t understand it.

Fight or flight might seem more useful responses. What possible good could come of freezing? Possibly a predator would not notice you; possibly fleeing you would be caught, fighting you would inspire retaliation, so freezing is least bad; yet the others still seem more active to me, and therefore more admirable.

Carl Shubs, PhD, wrote in June 2014 that Popular culture has long recognized three typical patterns of response to experienced or perceived threat: fight, flight, and freeze. Whatever the stories in popular entertainment, the basic phrase was “fight or flight”, as far as I was aware. I had to work out that I was freezing for myself, though I had heard phrases like a rabbit caught in headlights. I knew “fight or flight” are the primitive responses; I came out with a wrong response, and get more confused and ashamed.

If you google “Fight or flight”, you find articles like this pdf from the University of Nottingham. It is aimed at students using the university counselling service, and explains in simple language why you might feel sick in such a situation, and what long term anxiety can do; but it is titled “What is the fight or flight response?” That is, even though psychologists knew people froze, they still wrote about fight or flight, and if you knew no better and searched for that phrase you would not necessarily learn better. That article says The Fight or Flight response evolved to enable us to react with appropriate actions: to run away, to fight, or sometimes freeze to be a less visible target, but otherwise does not mention freezing. Autocompletes in my search box suggest hormone, stress, freeze, hormone, gland, definition.

If you search “fight, flight, freeze” the next suggestion is “fawn”. I posted in facebook, “Fight or flight” is a false understanding. Many people do neither. Instead, we freeze, imagining I was telling people something they didn’t know, or at least putting into words something people had an inkling of but could not express, Luke wrote, Fight, flight, freeze and fawn are the four characteristic responses we recognise in psychosexual somatics therapy. “Fawn”. I had not thought of that at all, but seeing it makes complete sense. Sometimes people use “appease”, going for rhyme rather than alliteration. Most of the threats that frighten us come from other people, though I might try to calm an angry dog.

This post, also from 2014, reassured me. Most of us are already familiar with the concept of the ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived danger… However, there are two other responses to threat which are less well known – the ‘freeze’ response and the ‘fawn’ response. I was behind the curve, but not quite so bad. Some traumatised people have these responses on a hair trigger, and go into them in inappropriate situations.

The fawn type will often go out of their way to help others, perhaps by performing some kind of community service, but without building up emotionally close, or intimate, relationships, due to a fear… of making him/herself vulnerable to painful rejection which would reawaken intense feelings of distress experienced as a result of the original, highly traumatic childhood rejection.

What I see as my good, innate, qualities might be a response to trauma. But- someone’s got to be like that, or society would fall apart.

On popular culture, TV Tropes told me “Fight or Flight” was an episode title in Star Trek: Enterprise, Supergirl, and Burn Notice, and a chapter title in It lives in the woods. Searching for “freeze” was inconclusive, but I learned “damsels”, that is, girlies who exist mainly to be tortured by baddies and rescued by heroes, are particularly bad at fight or flight. Wikipedia has an article “Fight or flight response” which mentions freezing, but only under the heading “Other animals”. Its article on “Freezing behavior” refers to prey animals and animal studies, rather than human responses. “Fight, flight, freeze or fawn” redirects to “Fight or flight”, with no further mention of “fawn”.

Someone else on facebook gave a fifth alternative, “flop”: Freeze is more of an adrenalinised response – the body is tense and ready for action, whereas in flop the whole body is floppy – literally like playing dead and the brain is also shut down. The more words we have to understand threat responses, the more choice we have.

(c) Larne Borough Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

8 thoughts on “Fight or flight

  1. I often simply turn and walk away from a threat, feigning a disinterest and dismissing it. If the perpetrator does not sense that I feel threatened, there is no power in their threat. I may leave myself vulnerable to the aggressor’s potential escalation, however, so I still remain vigilant as I make my retreat. This may be seen as flight, but I sometimes – when my timing is right – get a witty dig in before walking away. That may be considered fighting back. I guess it’s something in-between, then. I would call it “slight” (at least it rhymes).

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