Threat Management (1)
We are generally quite familiar with descriptions of our Fight or Flight response to immediate danger; this is the up-regulation of our Central Nervous System, or a state of hyperarousal. In addition, people speak about a Freeze response; they do this implying that Freeze is the opposite response. Fight is the aggressive moving towards a physical threat with the goal of overpowering the situation. Flight is running away from danger in order to escape. While the Freeze response is seen as the involuntary shutting down of the nervous system. However, while this covers most of our reactions to immediate risk, there are a number of other ways that are as common within broader threat management but not as dramatic and easily recognised.
Now for a little theory, according to the current Polyvagal Theory of threat management Fight or Flight are seen as the responses of the evolutionary modern myelinated vagus nerve fibres. While the Freeze response is due to the activation of the evolutionary older unmyelinated fibres. So while we share the Fight and the Flight responses with our mammalian cousins; the Freeze response is far higher up the evolutionary tree, including all vertebrates: birds, reptiles and fishes.
However, this is not the whole picture of Threat Management in our daily lives. Firstly, human threat management responses are far more inclusive than only the immediate central nervous system reactions to immediate physical danger. Our modern lifestyles can open us to stresses and dangers that are ongoing, unavoidable and invisible. This can be from the daily commute jammed into a small train carriage, to mortgage payments, and job interviews to being trolled on social media where we don’t even know who or where in the world the threat is coming from. These are all dangers that cause a response within our bodies as well as mind that need to be managed, especially if the situation cannot be resolved.
A second limitation to the Fight/Flight/Freeze framework is that these are all automatic reactions of the nervous system becoming more aroused, “getting wound up”. The Freeze Response is misunderstood as a slowing down, but it is actually still a hyperarousal response. The nervous system is still regulating upward; however, the stress systems go up so high and/or so fast that there is an overload and then complete shutdown. Commonly this is due to feeling especially powerless or due to the shock of something happening so quickly or being completely unexpected.
We as sophisticated and civilised social beings have a number of other responses to manage threats, especially ones that are not immediate and physical. Threats can also be social, psychological and structural. Such daily experiences are racism, a toxic work environment, a hyper-competitive family system, underemployment, etc are all intangible hazards that can even go unnoticed.
Our responses go far beyond merely waiting for a trigger and then implementing an automated response. People anticipate, notice patterns and strategically plan ways to either avoid or minimise the chance of the threat developing or just reduce its intensity. Within this range of risks and responses, we probably find a greater part of our everyday lives.
We speak of Flight or Fight because it is easier to notice these situations as well as the responses within our own systems, both body and mind. This gives us the illusion that we are not under threat, if we are not in a wound-up, hyperaroused state. However, many of the threats in our daily lives are not as noticeable and we don’t have this intense fear reaction; but these threats are as real and have, at least, as much impact on our bodies and our psychology.
With this understanding of the immediate fight/flight/freeze response, now let’s look at how we cope with ongoing dangers that we don’t see – “Pleasing Others to Cope“.