Fight or Flight

Sometimes I look at other people who are dealing with crises and I think they’ve got it all covered and they’re acing life. When I am stuck in this thought pattern what I am failing to see is the process they’ve gone through to get to where they are at that moment. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t have the inside track on their reality.

The simple truth is that we all have a fight or flight reflex in us that gets triggered when change and/or crisis is unfolding. Our natural instincts kick in and, before we’re even aware of it, our body has made a decision for us. Do I fight, or do I run?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question in itself. Circumstances will affect which option is the wiser for us, on the day, at the time.

We’ve all found ourselves in situations where, when we look back with hindsight, we would have made our choice differently. Perhaps we didn’t have the energy reserves that we thought we had. Perhaps we made an emotional decision without considering the resources we would need or the significance of the barriers in front of us. Perhaps we thought we were depleted but it turned out that there was resilience at hand that we hadn’t seen at first glance. Maybe we thought others were better able to act instead of us. We felt we ‘lost’ or failed at the time. The thing is, experience is a tricky legacy to live with. Is it of greater benefit to have fought, lost and learned a valuable lesson? Or is it better to surrender and keep our strength for what’s truly important to us? Not every circumstance requires a battle. Not every situation is lost.

The flight or flight response can also be affected by a person’s predisposed emotional reactions. This means that, where a person is known to react with aggression then it’s more likely that stressful situations will trigger an aggressive response. That’s what we’ve learned, it’s our well-worn path. Alternately if a person is anxious then this anxiety will be amplified by stressors. On any given day we may also be more or less disposed to either reaction.

I take the people around me as my litmus test for how I am reacting. If I am anxious, the people around me unconsciously respond to this and may endeavour to reassure me, or I may feel that they are overbearing or excessively co-dependent and demanding of my attention. If I am aggressive, their response tends to match mine and their reactions may feel out of proportion with what I think is reasonable in the circumstances.

The question is, how do we regulate our flight or flight response in stressful circumstances? How do we keep our response in perspective? This is especially challenging when our instincts, our learned behaviours and our brain chemistry are dictating our response before we are aware of what is happening.

My experience is that, today, we don’t. Learning to ‘survive’ is exactly that, a process of learning. Many people may have observed my own response to various situations in my life and thought “Wow, she really didn’t handle that well, did she?” or “Wow, how did she stay so calm and collected?”. I ‘survived’ under the circumstances and gained valuable lessons on how to respond next time. Next time, I responded based on what happened last time or the time before. I’ve found that it’s really important to skill myself up for stress when I am not stressed. It may sound a bit funny, but practicing healthy responses and spending time reflecting on my experiences is really important to do when there’s nothing going on. I’ve found that, without practice it’s impossible to find perspective, right in that moment, when I am attempting to respond to a crisis. *Note: A crisis may be anything from ‘I’ve run out of bread and I have nothing in the cupboard to make lunch with’ to ‘A close family member has died and I need to get the family together, the undertaker organised and find the Will’. Small or big situations still need a similar amount of practice. And when I mean practice, I don’t mean I do a morning We’re out of Bread Drill once a month, I mean practices that work for me at all times when instinct kicks in and I have to think quick.

How do i respond? Do I fall apart? Do I freeze? Do I act? Do I fight? The practice is to give myself the best chance of assessing the situation quickly and finding an appropriate response. Media coaches often say to their clients, if you’re not sure how to respond to a tricky question, take a drink of water. The idea is that this gives a person time to think and formulate a response without appearing to stall. ER doctors and Paramedics practice crisis response over and over again before they are even given the opportunity to get close to a patient. Practicing responding in life’s little, or big, crises works similarly. I don’t drink a glass of water, and I may not be saving a life, but I do need to take a deep breath. Literally and consciously, because I know I need to. It’s a strategy that works for me.

On days when I see people out and about getting it right it’s easy to feel gloomy and think I am falling short of the mark. The truth is I have valuable and valid experience and I have a willingness to participate and practice the skills that are needed to help myself and help others when things go wrong or when change suddenly t-bones me at life’s intersections. I practice knowing what my values are, I attempt with the best of my ability to respond with wisdom, compassion and grace. I accept that my best on the day at the time is enough to ask of myself. And I take every opportunity to learn and reflect.

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