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Fight, Flight, Freeze

A few years ago I recall seeing a documentary type thingy on television about the 'fight or flight' reflex, which postulated that there are actually three responses - 'fight, flight, freeze'.  The programme said that we can't control the way our reflexes work, but that knowing how they work we can then choose the 'what next.'

Last week a 'thank you' card arrived through my letterbox.  It was from someone I encountered whilst on holiday and had helped in her moment of need (she had broken her ankle at the top of a mountain, since you're all wondering).  The card commented on how I had known what to do and had quietly taken charge until help arrived in a way that made them feel safe.  My gut reaction is 'I just did what anyone would do...'  I have had first aid training in the past and as I saw her fall and scream, just found my feet carrying me in her direction, and my voice shouting 'don't move her.'  It was all instinctive.  There was nothing especially significant in what I did (indeed, had something not prompted me to make this post I wouldn't have mentioned it) it was just what 'one does.'

Over the last few months I have learned more about the fight/flight/freeze reflex in myself and in others.  I have discovered some of my closest friends paralysed as I told them my news, whilst relative (and total) strangers have found their metaphorical feet propelling them towards me, voices shouting 'it's alright...'  I have found that some people have fled, because their instincts carry them far away, as others have joined the 'walk in the dark.'  It is, it seems, just the way they are wired, and perhaps they haven't always known how to manage their instincts.

I think I am fortunate to have the 'fight' reflex, the one that allows me to walk in and calmly do what's needed (just how many times have people said 'does nothing phase you?' (yes, plenty of things, but usually it's afterwards)), the one that has enabled me to go through my treatment with a smile on my face (at least most of the time).  I also think I (and we) have a responsibility to know myself (ourselves) and 'manage' my (our) reactions to others' situations. 

A lot of the folk I've met this year, whether in the flesh or online say they are not doing or being anything special in their dealings with disease or disaster.  I don't think they are being cheesy or falsely modest, I have a feeling that they too have the 'fight' reflex.  They are just getting on with it, being who they are.  Maybe people who are differently wired find 'fighters' inspirational, and maybe I (or we) need to learn how to relate to 'flee-ers' and 'freezers' in a way that is healthy for us all?

I wonder what your reflex is?  Does it vary with context?  How can you manage it in a way that is healthy for you and helpful for those you love?

PS, how should I spell flee-er?  Fleeer maybe?!


  • A thought-provoking post, Catriona. I think I'm basically a 'fight' person like you (does it go with being in ministry, I wonder?) and was surprised to find people using the word 'brave' about me as I was going through diagnosis and treatment both times. I certainly didn't feel brave, but just knew I had to get on with it and keep going, which in my case involved finding out as much as I could about the disease and treatment alternatives (I'm very much in the "Knowledge is power" camp)

    I don't panic easily either and tend to find myself taking charge if it seems to be needed, which may come from being the eldest of 4. Mmm...I may find myself thinking more about this later on....

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