Fight or Flight

Freeze, Fawn (Appease), Tend and Befriend

To prevent, escape, or try to improve painful and traumatic abuse and neglect suffered growing up we developed survival techniques, defense mechanisms, and coping skills of fight, flight, freeze, or appease. We sought control in an out of control world and learned to fear close relationships. Even the normal ups and downs of relationships remind us of problems we had earlier in life, so often trigger upsetting and painful memories.

Early man used these responses when faced with real dangers, but modern man is under so much stress from so many directions even common everyday situations like traffic can feel very threatening. We may use many or all of coping skills these over time, but those exposed to significant neglect or abuse become fixated on one or more of the responses until they become deeply ingrained reactions, so over use them  when there is no real threat.

The fight individual avoids intimate relationships by becoming enraged and demanding. This is an unconscious drive to alienate others so that intimate relationships and the resulting vulnerability and risk of rejection are avoided. The fight reaction can manifest simply as denial and resistance or escalate into actual verbal or physical confrontation and attack that feels necessary to defend our sense of self and identity. These people are often volatile with a short fuse or hair trigger.

The flight response finds us running away to our rooms, schools, friends, or other people and places that felt safe or welcoming, even if dysfunctional and dangerous like gangs and bars. We also ran away into our heads; "the dark cave of rumination" to escape difficult people and situations. The flight response avoids close relationships by being distant or immersed in activities like work, sports, or other addictions to shield us from vulnerability and intimacy.

Freezing up means shutting down and closing up, as our bodies and thinking became hard, tight, and rigid. We may have attempted to relax or numb out through drugs and other distractions such as obsessive compulsive exercise, work, or other endeavors. "Freezers" avoid by not participating socially, isolating, and taking refuge in fantasies and daydreams.

Appeasing is considered a relationship addiction as we form and maintain one-sided or abusive co-dependent relationships. Appeasers attempt submission and people pleasing as a way of winning others attention, approval, and love. Fawners go out of their way to help others in a codependent dance to serve others, but at a loss of their own sense of self.

Although these states were very useful for surviving jungles and savannahs they are problematic in modern life as they create a negative bias to remain vigilant for threats. This fosters a negative mindset and focus on negative stimulus. Even neutral situations are colored as negative or threatening and positive stimulus (faces, words, etc) are missed or ignored.

The fight or flight modes were identified over a hundred years ago, freeze and appease came much later. A new pattern has been identified called "Tend and Befriend". This is supposedly the female approach versus male for the others. There is of course much controversy over the gender aspects. 

The benefit of this mode is to protect offspring (tend) and rally others in the social circle for comfort and protection (befriend). The downside is this leads to tribalism as outsiders are avoided or shunned.
We come to favor one or two of these patterns, yet may cycle through them all at one time or another.

 All  these patterns can be helped but are not considered curable so we are wise to recognize them in ourselves, work to overcome them, and be proactive to avoid them. Many were set deeply early on perhaps even before we could even speak, so accessing and overcoming them can be very difficult.

It would be easy to consider these as character defects to be rid of, but are defense mechanisms and survival tools that helped keep us safe and functioning, so we actually owe a debt of to gratitude to them as they have served us well many times. Through awareness, focus, and understanding we gain the wisdom to transform them into useful tools and integrate them into our lives beneficially.

The impact on our beliefs, behaviors, and bodies is also influenced chemically when these responses are triggered. As much as we can appreciate the image of the heart a center of feelings and ascribe emotions to it the mind is intimately connected to them as well. Beneficial chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin, as well as potentially problematic ones such as cortisol and adrenaline come from deep within our brains and have a huge effect on our emotions and well being.

Certain areas of the brain light up with loving thoughts to produce and distribute dopamine to the brain, so it is considered the pleasure drug. It also signals to us the importance of things thus mediating desire and motivation, so it could also be called the desire drug. Anticipation of rewards increases dopamine in the brain just like addictive drugs, so this helps explain why we are sometimes so obsessed with love and desire.

Oxytocin is considered the love hormone (for women in particular) as it assists in bonding with their offspring and mates. It also enhances trust, generosity, pleasure, joy, empathy, and reduces depression, fear, and anxiety for men and women. Testosterone inhibits oxytocin effects in men, perhaps so they would not feel the pain and suffering of the game they hunt and enemies they fight. The gender aspect  indicates men must make extra efforts to elicit and maintain their love and oxytocin flows.

Human love also lights up areas in the brain that produce serotonin, a calming chemical thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. It is also associated with good mood, memory processing, sleep, and cognition. Serotonin and well being are activated when we hug and hold others, and not only people, but our cats, dogs, and other pets and animal friends.

Cortisol and adrenaline are produced in response to trauma or stress and gives us the energy and focus for fight or flight response. These can also induced by caffeine, sleep deprivation, intense exercise, and  heavy drinking. These are so ubiquitous in us they can be measured in our blood,  saliva, urine, hair, or feces. The flood of cortisol and adrenaline is fine in the short-term to avoid and deal with threats, but over the long term cause mood disorders, anxiety, depression, stress, illness, fear, and pain. These can be reduced by music, massage, laughter, dancing, and magnesium supplements.

The mind is an electro-chemical organ so is not just operating chemically, but on various levels of brain wave electrical activity as well. The highest is Beta, the alert, aroused, actively engaged  working state of mind. Alpha is more relaxed, restful, calm, and reflective state. Theta is the drowsy, day dreaming state of imagination and inspiration. Delta takes us into sleep as the deepest and  dreamless state below consciousness. Perhaps it is here we meet and join the oneness of universal consciousness.

There are two nervous systems working within us: the activating and alerting sympathetic nervous system triggered by adrenaline and cortisol, and the calming and restoring parasympathetic nervous system of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Arousal of these systems can be due to hereditary factors as well as become habitual to environmental factors.

The importance of this awareness is to recognize how much time we spend in each state mentally and physically. Type A high achievers likely spend a lot of time in beta mind states. Those in fight and flight etc. modes also obviously trigger aroused alert states, but when you look at the downside of the chemicals  released and their detrimental long term effects it becomes apparent how important a balanced heart, mind, and life really are.

When we look at people such as meditators who spend a lot of time in the lower wave states we see much peace, calm, and confidence. It is easy to consider these people as less important than high profile "movers and shakers", but the Dalai Lama, Ghandi, and many other spiritual/religious figures show how powerful and influential contemplative persons can be.

Another Shorter Take on Fight or Flight Response:

When early peoples faced threats they eventually retreated to their caves for rest and safety. We are wise to do the same and make "caves" of comfort, safety, and rest. Under threat we breathe fast and shallow and our heart beats fast. The blood rushes to our muscles and we may feel faint, weak, and nervous. Our brain scans for danger and thinks negatively. We get tunnel vision and don't hear well so lose the big picture.

Our minds close in too. Over time frequent stress, depression, and anxiety conspire to sensitize us to further fight or flight reactions making it harder to recognize and reduce the effects. The amygdala secretes hormones like adrenaline,  cortisol, and others to the body in response to perceived threats. In our busy, crowded, noisy, live we spend way too much time in these stress response modes.

Cortisol, adrenaline, and others work together to cause a burst of alertness, energy, and attention by cranking out glucose and speeding up the heart to deal with threats real or imagined.  This increases arousal and vigilance and enhances memory retrieval and formation. With that comes tunnel vision and hearing to focus on the danger. Yet over time chronic stress also causes anxiety, restlessness, headaches, sleep deprivation, fatigue, depression, immune system weakness, acid reflux, and lowered metabolism. Over the long haul these lead to all kinds of illnesses and diseases.
On the other hand oxytocin, seratonin, and dopamine are the "feel good" hormones and serve to increase bonding,  generosity, and empathy. These also help relieve depression, aid sleep, and create trust. Relaxation, mental stability, and anxiety relief are also benefits. The dark side is the trust is built mainly among group members so we come to mistrust outsiders. 

The highest state is gamma waves. This is the hyper aware zone of super focus, expanded consciousness, and sharp awareness and concentration of top musicians, athletes, meditators and such. In this state of intense flow these masters are able to remain calm and highly productive even in extreme or  difficult situations. 

For the rest of us when we experience stress we go into an highly aroused and engaged state of beta brain waves.  People having an intense discussion and reading or writing complicated information would experience beta. This is also the range of the inner critical voice, and it gets louder the higher into this range our minds go. In beta we are often in a reactive state and running habitual mental scripts. Although beta activities can increase concentration and learning, they also tend to reduce emotional awareness and creativity, and cause mental and physical fatigue.

The alpha range is the non aroused state where we hear the voice of intuition. The intuitive voice and influence  becomes clearer and more profound the deeper and slower the mind becomes. Alpha is the home of better concentration, learning, visualization, and imagination. Here we may be in the flow of repetitious or monotonous tasks where we lose track of time and our minds wander. This relaxed state of reflection allows us to feel safe and free to explore creative possibilities unavailable under stress.

Theta waves indicate deep meditation, daydreaming, and REM light sleep. This is another area of powerful visualizations and profound creativity, inspirations, and insights. It is the subconscious and  primordial state of feelings and emotions beyond words and explanations. Here one might feel a deep spiritual flow and openness to oneness with life, all creation, and the infinite. 

Delta mind is unconscious, but very important for deep rest, sleep, healing, and regeneration. Here perhaps we have let go of ego and personality and become absorbed into universal power, presence, and wisdom. Unfortunately with the multitude of stressors in modern life many people find it hard to shift out of beta's intense, tiring, and reactive mind set. 

In the Star Trek series when the Enterprise was under attack Captain Kirk would order "All power to shields!" Consciously or unconsciously we do the same. We need rest and relaxation! Yet even on days off and vacations we carry the "got to do everything" (and perfectly) mentality to the extreme.
Long, slow, and deep breathing helps ground us and return to a calm state. Being grounded in our body means feeling emotions and being aware of the present moment experience.