This episode is about when we choose to freeze, both literally and figuratively. When there is a threat or perceived threat to our survival and we react by freezing. When fight or flight does not get activated and we put ourselves in harm's way by not moving. And how then, do we unfreeze?
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Fight or flight is defined as an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is or perceived as a harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. The simple perception of this threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or take flight.
I think it is important to first ask: How do you define survival?
Is it just about being alive and having a roof over your head and food on the table? Or is survival more about getting the most out of life? Does your definition include happiness and fulfillment? Each of our definitions of survival will probably also be altered by our individual definitions of “perceived threat”.
I think about this frequently, especially when working with my clients. Fight or flight is not so black-and-white. And there are so many things to consider regarding a perceived or actual threat to our survival… On top of that, we also need to consider, often when in stressful, frightening situations, and even when we are feeling attacked, literally, or figuratively… our reaction is to freeze.
There are animals in the animal Kingdom whose defense mechanism is to freeze or to play dead. This is their protection from an attacker, perceived attacker, anytime they feel there’s a threat to their survival. We are all animals in the animal kingdom.
You each all have your own stories of fight or flight but you also have your own stories of when you froze instead.
Remember the definition of fight-or-flight includes “…perceived harmful event, attack or threat to survival”.
This can mean so many things. And it is different for all of us.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on what a threat to our survival might be, this especially includes abusive situations.
But I want to take a second and pay specific attention to the word abuse. I know people have varying definitions of Abuse. Abuse doesn’t have to mean black-and-blue marks and broken bones. I know some people who think if there aren’t broken bones or physical bruises then this is not abuse.
The definition of abuse is actually quite simple. According to the Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, Abuse is defined as any action that intentionally harms or injures another person. In short, someone who purposefully harms another in any way is committing abuse. The true definition of abuse is about control.
To me and for the sake of this podcast, I want to be clear any level of being mistreated or neglected by another person is considered abusive. I am certainly not belittling, nor do I lay less weight on people who are in extreme physical, mental, or emotionally abusive situations.
I make this point, so we all pay attention to the broader view because the definition and the reality of abuse are on a much wider spectrum than some people acknowledge or realize.
I think as a society we are awakening to the varying levels of abuse, and mistreatment and disregard are not being tolerated any longer. For that I am grateful, people are no longer accepting not being treated less than they deserve to be treated and I am glad to see this awakening and realization happening.
I know the definition states the action has “intent to create harm or injury”. However, in circumstances where someone is told that what they are doing or saying is received as controlling, hurtful or disrespectful and they continue that behavior, regardless of if they intend to hurt people or not – it is still abusing someone.
Abusive behavior does not get a pass because the abuser hides behind the phrase “it was not my intention.”
Especially when it is brought to their attention, and they make no efforts to stop whatever it is they are doing that is perceived as hurtful – and apologizing while not changing is also not acceptable.
I wanted to be clear on that before I continue. Any level of mistreating another being is what I am referring to when I use the word abusive. Bottom line, No one gets to treat another being like they are less than… in any situation.
Ultimately this is being under attack, this is putting someone else in the position to defend themselves, this created stress and threatens survival. Even if you as the person being hurt or attacked doesn’t speak up for yourself. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward and explore the freeze aspect of how we can react to things.
When I was a child, my grandparents lived on a lake. Alligators also lived in this chain of lakes. On this particular day my parents went out, I can’t remember where, but the adults in the house let my brother and I go swimming in the lake. I would guess we were 6 and 7 years old, maybe 7 and 8.
When my parents arrived back home, they asked where we were. They were told we were in the lake swimming. It quickly became obvious that nobody was outside with us and my mother ran outside.
A perceived threat to survival… her fight-or-flight instinctively and instantly kicked in.
Running out the door of the house she yelled out to us, “Johnny and Wendy, come out of the water now!” My brother being the obedient child he was immediately started going in. I, on the other hand, needed a reason. I yelled back at my mother, “Why, we just got in?” I think I even said something along the lines of, “I am not getting out until you give me a reason.” Yes, I could be a total Brat when I wanted to – some will argue I still can.
But At this point, I hadn’t yet noticed the panic on her face. It wasn’t until she yelled, “Because the alligator is right behind you!” that I noticed it. I instantly started to panic, Of course, who wouldn’t with an alligator right behind them?! But I did not panic in the controlled “we need to take action” way that it was manifesting itself in my mother.
My Fight or flight did not kick in. Instead, I froze. I stood there in my panic, yelling for my mother to help me. Turning around and seeing the alligator swimming right towards me still did not help my fight-or-flight kick in.
I still stood there frozen. She kept yelling at me. I could see both helplessness and strength of will co-existing in the expression on her face. “Just start swimming! Get in here!”
Eventually, her fight-or-flight empowered me, her insistence that I take action to get myself out of a harmful situation. It activated something in me, and my flight mechanism kicked in. Adrenaline started to flow through my body.
With the alligator still approaching, I started moving, I swam and ran at the same time – making my way towards shore. With some screaming and panicking, most likely some crying mixed in there. On shore, waiting and fighting for me, encouraging me to keep moving was my mother and brother. Once I emerged from the water, with the alligator still on pace behind me together we all ran into the house to safety.
What I appreciate the most and why I share this story is: although my fight-or-flight did not initially kick in, my mother’s did. Although she couldn’t physically help me; I mean, for her to jump in the water, swim out to me, and get me would not have been an effective use of time.
I had to save myself.
But in this instance, I saved myself primarily because of the strength and power of the people around me. People loving, supporting, and encouraging me. The people who saw the danger I was in and the threat to my survival, even when I could not see it myself. I did not do it alone.
This story is important because too many times in life we freeze. We don’t take flight when we should, and we don’t fight for ourselves when we should. We just freeze. We might not even see the threat to our survival. But … as long as there are people around us who are fighting for us and as long as we are paying attention eventually our fight or flight will kick in.
The more you listen to or work with me, the more you will hear me say: you need to ask yourself “is this feeding my spirit or sucking the life out of me? I am not sure where I first hear this, but it’s the gauge I use to measure people and life circumstances in pretty much every situation and in every relationship, once you determine something is sucking the life out of you, you need to start making a plan to fight or take flight. Is there a way to fight to make something better, or is leaving the better or only option?
Of course, there are temporary situations we don’t want to be in that we endure in life, that is not what I’m talking about. There are certainly things we will do that won’t feed our spirit, but we do it for someone else, or we do it as a means to get someplace different or accomplish something new even in these cases – because these moments are getting us from something negative to someplace positive, I would argue that although perhaps unpleasant they still should still be seen as feeding our spirit because of the role they play in the movement to something better. You know the whole – enjoy the journey bit… that’s what I am talking about. Mindset and perspective are important.
My point is, long-term situations or relationships that are not feeding your spirit, yet you stay in them – this is when you are in a state of freeze. Staying in freeze mode should not be a long-term plan, it keeps your life in a suspended reality of not progressing forward. Sure, you wake up each day and live another day, but I’m talking about progress and advancing your life in a direction that brings you a happy, fulfilling life, this can’t happen when you are in the state of freeze.
This is why it is extremely important to surround ourselves with strong, positive people we trust. People who love us and have our best interest at heart. People who can see we are in trouble maybe even before we do… or before we are ready to admit it.
These are the people who will start fighting for us when we are stuck and temporarily unable to fight for ourselves. They are the ones whose perseverance and belief in us will help empower us so we are able to move. They might even be the ones to recognize the threat to our survival before we do.
Having these people around us is not enough though. It is essential to be open to people helping us, to listen when the people who love us are suggesting we fight for ourselves or take flight from a situation or relationship that’s not good for us.
How many people do you know who marry the person their friends and family begged them not to marry only to wind up unhappy? Or worse, in an abusive relationship. I bet even their instincts told them to avoid this situation and they ignored it. Because this is what we do as humans.
Let’s examine the process our bodies go through when under attack, but I want you to listen to these and think about your everyday life, not just when you have an alligator swimming towards you.
When we are under attack and our survival is threatened, our bodies are designed to survive, they are designed to do the following:
· Our heart beats faster, this helps oxygenate our major muscles.
· We breathe faster to help with oxygen circulation, especially in our bloodstream.
· Our blood thickens to help with clotting – preparing for physical injury
· Our pupils dilate to help us see better while increasing our peripheral vision so we can see more of our surroundings.
· Our hearing becomes sharper and more focused.
· Our body temperature changes, we either become hot and sweaty or cold, we might even get goosebumps. Our extremities might get cold as a reaction to more blood flow to our muscles.
· Our tolerance for pain increases to protect us from feeling any physical blow to our body.
When we freeze it’s our parasympathetic nervous system that kicks in instead. All the same physiological changes can still happen; During this frozen state, our body stiffens up and we might even hold our breath. Essentially, our fight-or-flight is delayed.
Ideally, it is a temporary pause that quickly leads to fight-or-flight.
Ideally. But sometimes we ignore all the things our body and mind are telling us and continue to remain frozen, maybe because as the situation and physicality of the situation subsides we no longer see the imminent threat, this situation has passed there is no reason to fight or take flight.
This is exactly why it can be hard to recognize when we are harming ourselves by staying in stressful or abusive situations. The attacks come and go, they do not sustain themselves continually all day every day. And in these calm moments, we convince ourselves it’s not that bad. We might not want to admit to ourselves the reality of our situation.
We might not even notice it yet, perhaps the change and toxicity happened gradually. Or, we ignore it because there’s a payoff. A paycheck, the perceived comfort of not being alone, or not wanting to lose a friendship.
When we are in it, it can be hard to see the danger or threat to our survival. Remember, a threat to survival can be as simple as our peace of mind, our confidence, our self-worth. It doesn’t always present itself in the obvious form of physical bruises or broken bones or being attacked by an alligator.
But even when mental, physical, or emotional abuse occurs since it is not a constant state of abuse, we might not see our attacker as a predator. We might not even realize we are under attack. Some people do a good job making you feel like you deserve the way you are being treated; they convince you that you caused this situation, you are to blame. In these cases, it doesn’t even occur to you to fight to take flight. But these are predators, the worst kind, this is being under attack. And your survival is in jeopardy.
When we find ourselves freezing and not moving or making headway when we are not doing anything to help ourselves.
Perhaps we are not recognizing our situation for what it really is. In these times when we are in stressful, or unhappy situations, and unable to move, This is where we need people around fighting for us. People who are standing on the shore yelling for us to move because the alligator is right behind us. Yelling for us to make some sort of progress to get ourselves to safety.
And it is in our best interest to listen. Sometimes things are much clearer when you are on the outside looking in. But once we realize we’re not alone, that there are people – even if it is just one person fighting or begging us to take flight supporting us we are more likely to make a move. Hopefully, we will unfreeze.
Be that person in someone’s life, or if you are the person feeling stuck and unable to move, listen to the people around you trying to help you. Or reach out and ask someone for help. There is always a move you can make, it might not be clear to you, but there is always a move.
If we do not have or utilize this support system, we could stay in freeze mode for a long time – maybe frozen forever. Unaware of the threat to our survival, perhaps at this point we have even adjusted our definition of survival to simply existing. Instead of making changes to fix the circumstances,
We allow ourselves to accept less and less than we deserve.
It is important to surround ourselves with people we trust, and people we know will help us when we’re in situations we need to get out of.
Perhaps they will recognize the danger we are in before we do. We need people who will help us fight for our lives, our well-being, and our happiness. People who will help us take flight when we can barely move. If we don’t recognize and identify predators as such and don’t acknowledge when we are in a stressful or abusive situation, that in itself is threatening our survival.
The lack of paying attention to negative situations when we are in them and the inability to recognize when someone is not treating us the way we deserve to be treated is a threat to our survival. When we don’t take help and we don’t fight or flee, and we stay frozen we allow ourselves to stay under attack and we live in a perpetual state that threatens our survival.
When we do this…it will affect our health and it will most certainly affect our state of mind. Both our physical and mental health are on the line. This is where anxiety and depression and other illnesses fester and live.
Paying attention and being truly aware of your surroundings is key.
Ask yourself “is this feeding my spirit or sucking the life out of me”
Ask it often.
And be honest about your answer.
Do not be an active participant in your own abuse.
Don’t put yourselves in situations that are not feeding your spirit. We so often do this to ourselves and then we justify the situation – like receiving a paycheck, not being alone, or not wanting to lose a friendship. We might even convince ourselves the situation isn’t that bad, and we stay. Or we don’t speak up on our own behalf because we don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. We stay frozen when the pain is not enough to outweigh the fear that can come with change.
I get it that, fighting or taking flight is not always easy.
But it is always an option. Too many times remaining an active participant in our own abusive situation or mistreatment somehow becomes the easier choice. A less frightening place to be. Probably because we convince ourselves it is not threatening our survival. We are convinced we are fine. Or we are sticking with the “it’s the devil I know” theory.
I stayed in a job way longer than I should have, it was a situation of constant criticism and micromanaging. And, when I spoke up about it, nothing was done to correct the situation – so I was also disregarded. Micromanagement shows a lack of trust and a lack of respect, this is a controlling relationship, and remember, the word “controlling” is prominent in the definition of abuse.
That, along with being ignored when I asked for something to change…I realized every day that I stayed I became an active, and actually a willing participant in my own mistreatment and disregard. Staying made it okay for them to continue to treat me and others like that. I knew this, and I knew it for a while. I just didn’t know how to move. I knew where I wanted to go and what I wanted to be doing. But I didn’t know what the first step was or how to take it.
This is a very important point.
When we are unhappy and standing there with a threat to our survival looking back at us, I think we all know what we would rather be doing and where we would rather be. In most cases, the real issue is, we just aren’t sure what that first step is. How to ensure that we are stepping out of this situation into a better one. The answer is – we can’t know, and that keeps us frozen.
But once you stop keeping it to yourself and you reach out to the people around you. You see people moving to support you and help you make that plan. That starts to relieve the fear.
For me, having a meeting with all my siblings, the 6 of us together discussing what we each want out of life and what’s stopping us from getting it. It was that conversation that opened my eyes. Having that conversation made me see clearly that three other siblings of mine are on a similar path as I am, and by talking about it, we realized we can work together and support each other.
Ah…The magic of saying something out loud and being heard! When you are not happy and you voice it to people who love and support you, they will rally around you and help you unfreeze. They might already know you are frozen and are waiting for you to see it for yourself.
If my mom wasn’t there that day fighting on my behalf and inflicting her will of fight or flight on me causing me to unfreeze for flight to take place, who knows what may have happened?
Think about your own life, are you frozen? Maybe you are and don’t realize it. Or maybe you do realize it, but you didn’t know what your first next step is.
Ask yourself regarding your job, relationship, your friendships, even your life in general, your day-to-day life, your free time, all of it… Ask is this feeding my spirit or sucking the life out of me?
If it is sucking the life out of you, then, it is most definitely threatening your survival. Think about where or when you feel those physical shifts in your body, I described earlier. These are all perfect indicators that fight or flight needs to happen. Or perhaps you have grown so numb to a situation or a way a person treats you that you don’t feel it in your body anymore – to me this is when you are in the most danger. This is when you especially need to listen to the people around you who are trying to wake you up to the reality of the situation you are in.
Keep in mind almost ALL of the stress you have in your life comes from the way you respond to what is happening in your life, not actually from what is happening in your life in this moment. Some will argue this is where ALL your stress comes from.
So, take a look at your life and the people in it. Are you ignoring all the signs? Are you staying frozen when you should be fighting or taking flight? Are people around you trying to give you the tools to make a move and you’re resisting them? What is your definition of survival? Are happiness and fulfillment part of it? This is your life, are you who you want to be? Are you where you want to be? What’s stopping you?
My name is Wendy Pilcher and I think you for listening to this episode of Identify and conquer, I hope this helps you pay a little more attention to the people and situations in your life and how you react to them. When your body is telling you that you should fight or take flight… Ask yourself “is this feeding my spirit of sucking the life out of me?"
Go to my community at changing my brain. Com to continue this conversation. You can also see the various ways you can work with me listed there. Or join us on Instagram @identifyandconquer You can also support this show by buying me a coffee, the link is in my show notes.