Maybe we all (vaguely) know the concept of fight or flight response. It’s what is known as the automatic involuntary response of the brain to a (perceived) threat. I also like to call it our internal survival system. Designed to keep us safe, healthy and… alive!

When in a dangerous or threatening situation (real or imagined), in a split second, we get hyper aroused and our brain decides if it’s going to fight, flight or freeze. It always chooses what it thinks is the best way to survive, or what it knows best (that means: if you have always learned to fight, you will fight, if you have always learned to flight, you will flight, etc.).

So, when we are in danger or perceive a threat (real or imagined), our internal survival system activates. Our brain then makes itself ready to fight or flight, or… chooses a third option: to freeze.

When you freeze, you (sometimes) dissociate from your body and it can feel as if you are watching yourself from a distance, outside of your own body. You can also go numb, or you can have the feeling that you can’t move. You’re ‘not here’ anymore but somewhere else. It often happens when you are physically incapable of fighting or flighting (or you perceive yourself as physically incapable) and/or because the situation is too frightening, threatening or emotional intense to process.

When you freeze, your body is trying to protect you (as is the same with fighting or flighting). All three are an evolutionary tactic. Most of the time they aren’t conscious decisions but something out of your control and they get activated in a split second.

The please response

I also want to add a fourth option that feels (or is) primarily human and a more modern way of looking to the human behavior and their responses to real or imagined threats: the please response. Sometimes in the holistic psychology literature (for example by this is called the fawn mode (a fawn is a young dear in its first year of existence).

It’s a very fragile, soft, powerless and vulnerable response, where you make yourself small and try to please others in such a way that you manipulate their behavior, and thereby the situation, to keep the peace. Because keeping the peace feels safer than the opposite. This is often the case when you grew up in chaotic, unpredictable environments where you had to please and fawn in ‘order to survive’ or keep yourself safe (as an opposite to the fight response for example).

The please response often is a result of the feeling that a situation is going to escalate and you are out of control. This happens the most in our relationships at home, work, outside, etc. but also in our society in general.

If there’s conflict, misunderstanding, miscommunication or you see (or feel) that someone experiences a heavy emotion such as anger, sadness, aggression, etc., you perceive that as a threat or danger. You then start to please the other and the situation in such a way that at all times and at all costs the peace is kept. You hope and believe that by pleasing and adapting that you keep yourself safe.

You make yourself small, suppress your own emotions, needs, behaviors, etc. and you give the other what he/she wants. You ignore your own boundaries and just basically become all that is needed to keep the peace. As a result you hope that others like you, love you, admire you, value you, etc. because you believe that will keep you safe.

How our society keeps us in survival mode

So, when there’s a real danger or threat, our internal survival system is a very good and healthy system that’s keeping us safe and alive. 

But, because of the society we are living in, we constantly think that we are in danger. While most of the time this isn’t the case. Think of the illusion of ‘not being good enough’ or ‘the illusion of scarcity‘ and how these illusions condition us to believe we are in ‘danger’ and that there isn’t enough e.g. food, water or money for everyone.

It forces us to be in constant states of arousal, rush and hurry and to compete with each other. Because of that we are ‘fighting and running for our lives’ almost daily. Believing that we have to compete with each other, all day everyday. 

Next to these 2 illusions, there are plenty of learned fears, learned threats, learned dangers, that aren’t necessarily true but that we are taught to believe by our parents, teachers, politicians, religious leaders, etc. 

The effects of long-term survival mode

So, often because of the society and systems we are living in, we perceive situations, relationships, or our life in general as dangerous or as a threat to our overall survival. Our internal survival system gets activated long-term and because of that we are in a fight, flight, freeze or please mode all the time, with all its consequences (stress, (heart and vascular) diseases, burn-out, etc.).

What happens then is that we (logically) choose behavior that we believe will keep us safe. But, often we behave in such a way that it is detrimental for ourselves, our growth, our health, our overall happiness, our surroundings, our close friends and family, and also for humanity, animals, the planet and nature in general (think of wars or the exploitation of animals and nature, and climate change because of that). 

So, because of our internal survival system which is constantly activated because of the society we are living in… We constantly perceive situations as if they are dangerous and a real threat, while often this isn’t the case.

This means that we are actually not really good (yet) at objectively assessing a situation in the moment as a real threat or an imagined threat. Especially not in the heat of the moment. Our internal survival system is strong, fast and happens almost always unconsciously (luckily…!).

Real threats vs. Imagined threats

This means that we have to start to learn how to distinguish real threats (when there’s real danger) from imagined (or learned, conditioned) threats (when there’s a perceived threat that actually isn’t a real threat and thus imagined).

Both of the threats activate the same stress responses and create the same emotion: fear or anxiety with the accompanying bodily responses. Whether the threat is real or imagined, the response is very real. Your body doesn’t know the difference between real or imagined threats, it just listens to the brain, so the response and the physical symptoms are very real and need to be acknowledged and treated as such (this is very important!). 

Become the neutral observer

It is now your task to start to learn to distinguish between these two and to get aware of your own responses to stress. Ask yourself over and over again in situations where you experience stress: is this a real threat or an imagined threat? And when it is the latter, what can you do to calm yourself down, to relax in the moment and to not choose fear, but to choose trust and love?

Starting to play with this in your daily life is the first step of taking your power back and healing and transforming yourself.

You have to start to objectively observe your behavior and learn how to calm, soothe and regulate yourself and your nervous system. You have to learn how to not respond immediately, but to create a pause between stimulus and response. Become the neutral observer.

Of course, it’s important to investigate why you perceive certain kinds of situations as a threat or as dangerous (and why others don’t), where this is coming from, where it originated. This has often to do with negative experiences or even trauma from your past or trauma that is passed on from generation to generation.

Start investigating and practicing that (and start healing the parts inside of you that cause you to perceive situations as a threat), and start choosing different behavior that comes from trust, love and abundance.

And then… see how, slowly, step by step, your life will change for the better. See and experience for yourself how you can take back control with the power of conscious, deliberate thoughts and choice because of that.

Ready to take your power back? 

Digital artwork by Jr Korpa