Tag Archives: fight

If you respond by freezing

We normally talk about fear in terms of flight or fight responses. There are a lot of things we have evolved to deal with either by trying to punch them or trying to run away. However, in some circumstances, there’s a third response available – freezing. It’s less talked about and can be more confusing. Terrible things are happening and you just shut down, and do nothing.

Freezing is what we do when we’re overwhelmed. It’s a response to situations in which there is nothing we can physically fight off, and nowhere to run to. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are experiencing freeze in response to the virus.

If you can’t focus your mind, can’t figure out what to do, are panic-scrolling on Twitter, half asleep all the time or feeling distanced from everything, this is the process you are in. Rest, time and distraction will help you move past it. This is a natural and reasonable response. It may feel confusing right now, but the answer is to be gentle with yourself and wait it out.

People who have already experienced trauma can find they are prone to freezing responses. Brutal lessons about your own powerlessness will do this to a person.

Hopefully there is a lesson we can all learn here for the longer term. Freezing is a normal response to being powerless. It is why many victims of violence, and especially of rape, do not fight back or manage to escape. Sometimes our bodies just shut down – it can have a protective function, helping us mentally distance ourselves from traumatic things. Understanding how this works will help us be more compassionate with ourselves, and with each other.


Living with fear

I’ve had some years now in which to study the mechanics of anxiety as they manifest in my own life. There are things I’ve learned about fear that I think have a wider significance at the moment. We live with many things that cause anxiety – massive uncertainty and insecurity about jobs, money, the political future, climate change – even for people in relatively secure, relatively privileged positions, there’s plenty to feel uneasy about.

Anxious people do not make good decisions. If you’ve been locked into fear for any length of time, it will be easy to frighten you into doing things. Fear of it getting worse becomes a motivator, so threats have more impact. If people, especially people with power tell us there are threats, we are more likely to believe them.

We are more readily persuaded to run when we’re frightened. The good old fight or flight impulse will be holding our inner steering wheels. For some, this comes out as fight, for a redirection of anxiety into violent action. It’s easy to hate and blame when you’re in fight mode, easy to be persuaded to hate and blame. Flight mode make it easy to persuade you to run, and as running away isn’t always an option, that can be subverted into other kinds of running hard. Working flat out. Never daring to stop and draw breath.

Exhausted people don’t make good decisions. Fear itself is exhausting. Fighting mode is exhausting. Flight mode is exhausting. After a while, any apparently easy solution looks tempting. We don’t have the resources to scrutinise, to consider alternatives, to think about nuances. We just want someone to tell us where the quickest, easiest path out is. Fear makes it hard to think straight, or to see the lie in the apparent easy option.

On a domestic scale, these issues are all part of what can keep an abused person in an abusive situation. We’re seeing it at a country level. It makes us easy to manipulate, and anyone offering an apparently easy answer – however empty and stupid that answer is – seems far more persuasive than they should.

We can stop this, we can turn it around. It won’t be easy. We have to not feed into each other’s fight and flight reflexes. The idea that hard work will save us needs to go, just as much as the idea that hating the ‘other’ will save us. Hate can be just as much a panic response as running round in little circles.

Our government has had periods of talking about the country as though it was one big house. In the austerity household, there’s been a lot of suffering for ages. Like a domestic abuse victim, we need to recognise it isn’t our fault we’re in this mess. We need to see the tactics of our abusers. They say they are helping, only doing it for our own good, that it is necessary, and the only way. They lie, as all domestic abusers lie. We need to stop letting them persuade us and manipulate us and control us with fear. But, be warned, in a domestic abuse context, leaving is the most dangerous time, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.