The other day I received a message from my sister just after she had narrowly avoided being hit by a truck that hadn’t bothered to stop at the traffic lights. Shaken, she wrote, “Life is like walking a rope high in the air every single day.”

If you have children, you can probably visualize this metaphor even better. The little bravehearts get themselves into dangerous, even life-threatening situations, hundreds of times per day. As a result, mommies and daddies walk the Earth in a state of constant fear. Don’t fancy being afraid? Think twice before becoming a parent.

Fear is an interesting thing. It can be both the source of growth or the source of destruction. From a biological point of view, fear is a sensation in our body initiated as a reaction to a looming threat. Without fear, we wouldn’t be able to tell that something bad is going to happen. Fear allows us to respond to danger. It keeps us safe. It makes us focus on what truly matters in the moment.

When we’re facing a threat – even perceived! – to our survival, the flight-or-fight response of the sympathetic nervous system is set in motion, releasing hormones whose job is to initiate rapid action. We either escape from it or we deal with it.

“The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.”

Understanding the stress response, Harvard Medical School

On the other hand, when fear takes completely over, it can paralyze us to the extent that we’re not capable of taking any action altogether. And here I’m not talking only about extreme circumstances, such as facing an imminent car crash, or being mugged. It can be triggered by any personal challenge that is too overwhelming for us to comprehend and take on.

Freezing is a defensive mode that not only humans but also animals use for coping with “stressful” events, such as spotting a hungry predator. As Karin Roelofs, Professor of Experimental Psychopathology, explains:

“It is a state of attentive immobility serving to avoid detection by predators and to enhance perception. Besides immobility, an important feature of freezing is the parasympathetically induced heart rate deceleration, also called ‘bradycardia’. Freezing differentiates with the sympathetically dominated fight-or-flight response activated during imminent predation threat. Especially, upon threat, both sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system are simultaneously activated and only in case of parasympathetic dominance do we observe defensive freezing.”

Image source

Let’s summarize it in a few points:

Your mind establishes that you’re facing a threat (mainly based on a past negative experience) to your survival.

This threat is either real (e.g., physical attack by another person) or perceived (e.g., the idea of us failing at our job).

As a result, our body experiences the emotion of fear.

There is no time (!) to distinguish between a real or perceived threat, since the survival responsefight or flight or freeze - needs to be triggered immediately.

And in the long run, an abnormally frequent activation of these physiological responses can take a toll on our overall health.

FIGHT - I take action.
FLIGHT - I run away.
FREEZE - I stay still.

If we take my sister as an example; when she was crossing the road and caught the sight of the truck coming at her, her brain quickly identified the situation as a threat and the sympathetic nervous system launched the fight-or-flight (in this case the latter) response in order for her to run to the sidewalk. Had she frozen instead to orientate herself a bit longer, she might have not gotten out of it alive. The acute, and unpleasant, emotion of fear she had experienced truly saved her life.

On the contrary, staying frozen for a moment sometimes helps a person to assess their next move, e.g., to locate the best escape routes; sometimes it allows them to take a few deep, slow breaths, thus stimulating the vagus nerve (the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system) that assists in lowering their heart rate, making them relax and unfreeze in order to take action.

As implied before, flight-fight-freeze are automatic, involuntary reactions. The question is how we can actively work with the emotion of fear in order to:

a) avoid the flight-or-fight response being switched on too often – i.e., even in non-life-threatening situations, such as checking your email inbox, looking for a place to park, or losing your keys), which could eventually result in an array of chronic health issues, such as digestive disorders, high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, or obesity.

b) prevent the freeze response from lasting too long or appear in an irrelevant context, so you don’t block yourself out of situations and relationships that seem too scary to engage in, leading to paralyzing experiences, such as phobias, panic attacks, or obsessive-compulsive behavior.

Practicing mindfulness can prove pretty practical here, in fact, even if hearing this word makes you cringe. If it’s the case, just imagine something as straightforward as observing your thoughts as random bits of information that come and go without posing any actual threat. A psychotherapist Ursula Steck describes a technique of imagining “the sky with thoughts and feelings as events happening in the sky such as fireworks, clouds, planes, balloons, kites, etc. These events don’t fundamentally change the sky and they also pass by.”

This metaphor serves greatly to underline the arbitrariness of our thoughts. Often a random, isolated thought makes you question yourself: “What is wrong with me? Why do I get such ideas?... Am I a bad person? Am I a failure? Am I not good enough?” However, it’s critical for you to remember that a thought means nothing – it’s not real + it doesn’t define who you are – until you give it your attention and activate it with a chunk of your own inner energy.

An appearance of a thought is arguably caused by something. Just like a balloon was blown up by somebody only to rise to the sky later, a thought originates somewhere only to manifest itself briefly in our mind. And yet, just because it does, we’re neither bound to act on it, nor give in to it.

Next time you experience fear, balance yourself with a few steady breaths, and try to tell if the event you’ve evaluated as “threatening” poses a true danger to your health and life or if it is but an imagined scenario in your head that is very much under your control.

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