Fight or flight ... or freeze, flop, or fawn ...
YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT response to stress and anxiety, but have you heard of freeze, flop or fawn?
These are the responses our cave dwelling ancestors had to threat, and were geared to helping us cope with the dangers we faced back then. They can be less helpful now.
This article will explain the various ways we can respond to perceived threats, and the effect our responses can have, both on us, and on those around us. It is intended as a brief introduction to the subject and does not go into the symptoms of each response in depth.
FIGHT gives us a quick boost of energy to save ourselves from rival tribespeople and angry bears. It originates from a time when making ourselves look big and scary, or delivering a punch on the nose and making a quick exit, might be all you needed to make life safe again. This response nips threatening situations in the bud, putting your safety first. It’s quick, it’s effective, it removes the need for rational thought, the consideration of others’ feelings, or any pondering on the long-term impact of your behaviour.
If you tend to cope with a certain amount of stress or anxiety then ‘snap’, it’s your brain’s attempt to get you out of an intolerable situation without too much thought or communication, and it can be very useful. If fight becomes your go-to response, however, it can wreak havoc on your quality of life, and particularly on close relationships. Your nearest and dearest will increasingly prioritise managing your temper over maintaining close emotional bonds. They will probably use the coping strategies listed here when communicating with you, abandoning authenticity in favour of a quiet life, or perhaps resort to the fight response, too, ‘fighting fire with fire’. While everybody can be forgiven for the odd outburst, habitually angry people end up being less able to rely on the goodwill and honesty of others. They can end up isolated and lonely and, in extreme cases, on the wrong side of the law.
FLIGHT is the opposite of confrontation – we get ourselves out of the difficult situation as quickly as possible, whatever the cost. This reaction made perfect sense back in the days when threats were likely to be immediate and life-threatening. Like anger, it saved our skins with no thought to the consequences.
While, on the surface, the flight response might seem less problematic than fighting, persistent running away from challenges can cause a whole lot more difficulty in our lives. A hungry lion is a hungry lion, but a difficult call to an energy supplier is not a hungry lion. Running away from it may save us from short-term discomfort, but our problems will not go away, and may get a whole lot worse if the energy supplier hasn’t been alerted to our circumstances.
Continually avoiding difficulties can be very frustrating for those around us. Our colleagues, friends and family learn not to rely on us when the going gets tough, and trust falls away. Our relationships become shallow and not highly valued by others. In extreme circumstances, frequent moves are costly and very stressful for those dependent on us. The flight response makes us abandon so much of what we want out of life in order to avoid the difficult bits, it can leave us isolated and not truly fulfilled.
These first two responses tend to be the most effective in getting us out of a stressful situation fast. When we can’t escape, for example in an abusive relationship or workplace, where for financial or many other reasons we can’t just leave, we’re more likely to freeze, flop, or fawn, or a combination of these.
FREEZE takes away the unpleasant sensations linked to stress and anxiety by numbing us to a place of ‘safety’. We become unresponsive and lethargic, avoiding challenges and feeling life is pointless. We may procrastinate, be indecisive and lack determination, taking refuge in mindless social media scrolling and binge watching – opting for an emotionless ‘bubble’ over making ourselves visible and therefore vulnerable. Freeze shares many symptoms with depression. We’re ‘playing dead’, hoping the danger will go away. A toxic home or work environment is not a prowling sabre-toothed tiger, however, and won’t usually pass us by if we wait long enough. Over time, this response can lead us to live half a life – a life where the washing gets done, the report gets filed and the kids get dropped off at school, but where joy, spontaneity and drive are absent, sapping us of the fulfilment we deserve.
FLOP is similar to freeze, but we become so overwhelmed by the situation we might disengage to the point of fainting. We become completely submissive, like the puppy rolling on its back and showing its belly: ‘I’m no threat; I give up; don’t hurt me.’ Like freeze, this response can leave us disengaged from our own preferences and desires, and not truly functioning in the world.
FAWN causes us to play the toady – we try to protect ourselves from threat by people-pleasing, going along with other people’s preferences and desires, avoiding saying ‘no’ or any potential conflict at all costs, and being hyper vigilant to the wishes of those around us while ignoring our own needs. While this may ensure we are superficially ‘likeable’ it can rob us of deeper, more authentic connections, and the ability to walk away from those who are not good for us. Like freeze and flop, we can become disengaged from our own preferences and goals, not living life to our full potential for joy and achievement.
When we freeze, flop or fawn in response to ongoing trauma, we find a way to cope in the moment, but these responses can give permission for others to ignore our worth and needs, so perpetuating the situation. This can have a devastating effect on our long-term mental wellbeing. We can become codependent or depressed, and lose sight of our authenticity, and the importance of our own self-fulfilment.
How can Solution Focused Hypnotherapy help?
It’s important to remember that all these behaviours are responses to stress and anxiety. Hypnotherapy is very effective at reducing stress and anxiety, so reducing the likelihood of turning to one of these behaviours in the first place. When we don’t feel unduly threatened we’re more likely to be rational and pragmatic about how we respond to situations, making calm perspective our natural reaction to life’s ups and downs.
One of the most important parts of hypnotherapy is learning about how the brain operates – I firmly believe that understanding why we’re behaving the way we are is the most powerful first step in changing it! I’ll then use solution-focused techniques and questioning to explore your hopes, wishes and needs – and develop the skills and resources you already possess to empower you to do things differently, ‘building up’ your confidence ‘muscles’ to take back control of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. After talking therapy we’ll consolidate your thoughts in hypnosis – a relaxed state of hyper-focus where we can engage your subconscious brain to help you realise your hopes for a better future.
Behaving more assertively and focusing on your own wellbeing may seem scary or downright impossible right now, but working together might lead you to being calmer, more confident, more self-reliant and more fulfilled. You might even be a lot happier!
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