Fight. Flight. Freeze...but, in a good way

Giving a seminar this past week to an audience I have not yet spoken to, I was introducing the topic of everyone's individualized fear response. Up until recently, our culture classified others as those who had either a fight or flight response. Not too long ago, we started also talking about the freeze response. Put simply, frightened people either become aggressive, escape, or become paralyzed.

In the mental health field I have often heard my colleagues talk about these responses in a negative or pathological framework, as though they are a response that must be overridden. We must teach those that fight out of fear to step away or be still. People that move away from conflict instinctually must be taught to face it assertively or to be still. Those that become paralyzed are coached to take action either by standing up or avoiding.

Yesterday, in the midst of a conversation about growth and developing, I wondered, what if we changed our perspective on these bodily, automatic, physiological responses. What if, because our body already responds sans asking permission or moving through a cognitive process, maybe we can embrace, slow the process, shape, and refine the skill. Maybe we can forgive our hearts and brains for the way we have learned to deal with fear.

Without the judgment, we might be able to care for even the parts of ourselves that pop up when we are most fearful. Many of our innate response style is born our of years of growing up and learning in our own unique childhood. Can we just notice and observe our response? Instead of fight, flight, or freeze can we re-name these effective strategies as "respond, step away, pause"? When said like that, all three are tools I teach to my clients toward growing and developing.

Merely changing the way we perceive our own individualized automatic response can reduce our shame. Instead of, "I am weak, when so-and-so yelled at me, I didn't say anything and walked away (flight)." How about reframing, "Hmmm, I am great at choosing my battles, I didn't think that was worth an immediate conflict, now I have time to process and think things through before responding (step away)."

Or instead of, "I really lost my temper when my partner was unreachable by phone (fight)," how about, "I need my partner to know that for my peace of mind it is very important that he is reachable by phone (respond)." The first is critical, shaming, and without room for growth. In the second statement it is easy to see a self-relationship developing and the easy path to sharing specific needs with others, only making relationships with others stronger.

In our society we are told that we must always try to become better people. We can't rest. There is more money to be made. There is more success to be garnered. There is more weight to lose. There are more social occasions to be present at. The flight, fight, freeze response, or as we have just re-named it, the respond, step away, pause response is natural. It is created within us to keep us safe. Each of us have different components, different triggers, different thresholds. We are individualized and actualized the way we are. Certainly there is always work to be done, and the first step in that work is acknowledging how we are made and how we have developed.

Next time we are scared and we respond, step away, or pause, hopefully we can also use the experience to better understand our own needs and learn from that inquiry. There is great health and wellness in compassion for ourselves through witnessing and validating.