Your boss walks in to your performance evaluation with a frown. A waitress gives a snarky response to your question. As you exit a store, a security officer chases after you.
What is your response to each of these situations? To varying degrees, each represents a potential threat or danger to your well-being. Perhaps you’ll end up fired, mistreated, in jail, or worse. Or maybe not. The uncertainty about how each situation will work out only adds to the stress you feel.
In such situations, we tend to respond in conditioned ways that are hard-wired into our DNA. We might:
- argue (fight),
- run (flight), or
- space out (freeze)
These three responses represent the same spectrum of responses that our ancient ancestors developed in response to threats within their environments (a wild animal approaching the home, or an enemy clan attacking the village). Though the particular threats we face today have changed a lot since our ancestors’ times, our natural responses to those threats have not. We tend to still engage in fight, flight, or freeze responses because to a large extent, our physiology (biological systems, hormones, and physical responses to stress), are still the same as they were thousands of years ago.
As individuals, we tend to be born with the capacity to engage in whichever of these responses makes the most sense for a particular situation. But we can come to over-rely on a particular response due to our personal life experiences, traumas, and childhood environments. We learn to argue, run, or space out in order to survive our childhoods. Each family, neighborhood, or even society will tend to influence what kinds of responses we habitually use.
For instance, a child remembers being slapped in the face by her father’s brother. He was too big for her to fight, and freezing like a deer in headlights would have only made her more of a target for his rage. So now whenever that uncle comes to visit, the child has the urge to hide in her room or find a way to play at a neighbor’s house. Her attempts to avoid the threat (her uncle) represent a “flee” response, and are actually a pretty smart strategy (given the circumstances).
However, if she starts to flee whenever men come to visit the house, or maybe later in life she gets nervous whenever she meets men who even vaguely remind her of her uncle, we would say that is having a trauma reaction. Perhaps she starts doing this with other threats too; perhaps she quits jobs whenever a co-worker appears mean to her or changes homes whenever a neighbor seems intrusive. Now, perhaps she is over-relying on this strategy. She has unconsciously decided to “flee” whenever she feels threatened, even if it might be more effective to confront her co-worker (fight) or just space out whenever her neighbor starts in on another annoying rant (freeze).
Do you rely on one or more of these strategies too often, or at inappropriate times? Do you space out when maybe you need to be getting the heck out of dodge, or run away when you probably should fight back? It can be hard to tell. It’s not that either of these strategies are right or wrong; it’s just that ideally, we would have time to figure out which strategy makes the most sense before doing it. Yet many of us just go with what we’re used to doing out of habit, and our habits are usually based on childhood situations, not the situations that we are currently facing (the woman described above probably does not really stand the risk of being slapped by her irritating neighbor, but she behaves as if the neighbor is her uncle, and runs away in fear).
So, what are our other options? Habits can be hard to break, but a good first step is awareness. If we are aware that we tend to rely on a particular strategy, than we can decide to become more conscious about if, when, and how we use it. This takes a certain level of mindfulness, meaning attention. We pay attention to those times in which we get “triggered,” reminded of trauma from our past that causes us to respond to a new situation as if it is the same as an old situation.
One approach to trauma, called body-centered psychotherapy, encourages us to pause before we launch into a fight, flight, or freeze response. Maybe we create this pause by taking a deep breath, counting to 10, or simply saying something to ourselves like, “Okay, this is happening.” And in that pause, we insert a new “f” response: Feel. We allow ourselves to feel how this situation is impacting us physically. Is our heart racing? Is a headache forming? Are our shoulders tense? Is our stomach doing flips? As we take this moment to check in with our bodies, we are creating space for ourselves to choose. Now, do I really want to yell at this waitress, or should I just walk away? Do I mean to be staring wide-eyed at my boss right now, or would I like to say something? Just a few seconds of allowing ourselves to feel what is happening inside of us can interrupt our habitual patterns, creating a space where we can choose to insert a different, or maybe even a completely new, response to what is scaring us.
Of course, there will be situations where taking a moment to breathe and feel is not possible, or even a smart idea. If your life or safety is truly in danger, go with your gut. But in those moments when you catch yourself just doing what you usually do, and wondering if maybe there’s a different way, take a moment to breathe. Then, take another moment to feel. Those few moments of mindfulness might just help you emerge from a potentially dangerous situation with a better outcome, and a newfound sense of power and control over your own response.