Collapsing to Survive Storm's Edge Therapy

Collapsing to Survive

Threat Management (3)

When working with people adapting to horrible circumstances and then supporting them to make a life beyond merely surviving, a number of other threat management patterns are evident. These additional psychological patterns are all aimed at managing ongoing detrimental situations, rather than a shock response by the nervous system. The partnered Flight and the Flight responses are aimed directly at managing a physical threat situation, either by moving towards or away.

Flopping Over

Collapsing to Survive Storm's Edge TherapyThe Freeze response is when the sympathetic nervous system overloads with its partner being the Flop Response. This is not about a hyperarousal that has overwhelmed the person, but a true opposite of a parasympathetic nervous system overactivation. Flopping actually looks quite different; rather than the intensity and rigidity of the Freeze Response, here we find a collapse. The body becomes soft and floppy, even to the point of falling over. There isn’t a fear emotional response as in freezing, but a disconnecting from emotions – all emotions. And the mind becomes vague and confused without a clear direction or plan.

Collapsing to Survive Storm's Edge TherapyA Flop Response can be both acute and chronic. The immediate response to a threat could look like daydreaming, confusion or even fainting. And the chronic long-term response is a disengagement from getting your needs met, setting future goals, even simply having preferences or wishes, etc. This can be a response to an immediate threat that is physical, but more likely to something that is ongoing and psychological or social; like being bullied or an abusive domestic environment. A life that has “flopped” is passive and empty with the person following the path of least resistance as a lifestyle. The cover mantra that helps make this strategy ok is “making the best of a bad situation”.

Faking Your Way Through

Last in the standard Threat Management Model is the Fawning Response; this is the strategic manipulation of a dangerous person by proactively meeting their needs. The word fawning, displaying exaggerated flattery or affection, is used to evoke the idea of fake and exaggerated pleasing behaviour. This is not an authentic attending to someone through admiration, but a survival strategy born out of abuse and desperation. However, it is a means of gaining some degree of power as it is the pleaser that is orchestrating and potentially reducing the harmfulness of the situation.

Collapsing to Survive Storm's Edge TherapyThe partner to Fawning is the Fibbing (Faking) Response, where you disengage from a person or a situation by lying. This is a strategy that works when a threat is built around a set of circumstance; the victim will change the circumstance through misinformation. So when a dangerous person makes a demand, accusation or judgement, the victim would lie and present the situation differently with the hope that’s this will change the expectation and, in turn, reduce the threat. Like Fawning, lying can be used to deescalate an immediate situation, but is built on an ongoing strategy that has become a habit for survival.

Outlined in these first three blogs in the Threat Management Series is the standard, if extended, model of survival responses to a threat. There is a movement from immediate, biological reactions to what could almost be called “lifestyle” strategic responses as well as expanding from events to include relationships. An additional dimension to this framework is that each level has an active (Fight, Freeze, Fawn) and a passive partner (Flight, Flop, Fib/Fake) partner. This reflects the broader difference in strategies of either engaging or disengaging. This is why the model is most often merely called the Fight or Flight response; in addition to those responses being the most biologically identifiable and established.

[Side Note: On Being a Victim]

Throughout this series the term victim is used, which is considered in many situations to be politically incorrect. As it is seen as a judgment of the person and diminishing or derogetory. However, this is a specific choice as all the responses described are from a position of having no power. Although some responses are more strategic and effective at reducing harm, they are still about the person not been able to control the situation. A victim is a person being controlled and in the position of responding, rather than being able to determine the situation and outcome on their own terms. A victim is a responder not an agenda setter. A survivor has shifted to the position of been able to control their own situation, rather than only being in a position of reacting. It is inaccurate, disrespectful and invalidating when somebody feels like they have no control and are the victim of the situation to not acknowledge the true state that they are in. When feeling like a victim this can be acknowledge without implying some character flaw or that they are forever powerless to change. A victim is a real position to be in as well as a real place to escape from – a journey defined.

In this Blog post we completed the standard Threat Response Model by including Flopping and Fibbing(Faking), while in the next post we discover further long-term coping mechanisms that you might be using without knowing.

Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze Storm's Edge Therapy

Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze

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.

Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze Storm's Edge Therapy

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.

Beyond Biology

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.

Everyday Hidden Dangers

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.

Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze Storm's Edge Therapy

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“.

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