Survival programming

Fight, flight, freeze or fawn

In an ideal world, we should all be able to heighten our sense of alertness during moments of genuine threat, but then switch that mode off when the danger has passed. This is how we are designed, to be able to respond to the threat of a charging animal, of a treacherous mountain pass, or a hostile neighbour, but then move back immediately afterwards into our natural state of calm.

We even have mechanisms within our para-sympathetic nervous system that help us find that calmness again, but these tools have largely been suppressed. Nowadays, these release mechanisms are only visible in the animal world where the predated beast that narrowly escapes death will shake to release the shock of the trauma and then return to a normal state of being.

In neurological terms, we have a glandular system at the base of the brain called the amygdala. This is part of our reptilian brain, so responds dramatically and instantly to threat. Once this initial adrenalin charged response has happened, we move to our secondary response which is the more rational processing of our prefrontal cortex. This is the ‘human’ brain and is more sophisticated in its thinking.

For example, we might jump at a loud noise, our heart might beat rapidly for a second or two as we have a surge of adrenalin, but then our pre-frontal cortex realises that it was just a slamming door and tells our amygdala to calm down.

This is the ideal situation. In reality, most of us live in a stressful world where the threats are less obvious and more insidious. We might be worrying about our finances, our physical health, our job or our core relationships. These can keep us in that amygdala charged state of alert continuously. This has many negative effects on our health, especially our immune system, and daily internal duties are left until the danger is perceived to have passed. For many of us that never happens, so important but less urgent duties within our bodies, like detoxing or fighting viruses, are left or only partially completed.

Our emotional body is also affected by being in survival mode. Emotions such as anger, anxiety and even depression are all natural states when we feel under threat. If we are going to fight we need anger, if we are going to respond quickly in any way, anxiety keeps our senses heightened. If our supplies are low, depression keeps us in a low energy burning state during a long winter.

Coping strategies

It is possible to have unprocessed survival programming, to have learnt to live in one of the 4 core responses of fight, flight, freeze or fawn rather than entering them in the face of acute danger and exiting when the danger had passed. When this happens, we are likely to develop a core coping mechanism to get by. This will become our wounded way of living with the threat response still open:

  1. The fight type – this person can be quick to anger, very demanding, avoidant of close relationships and have a fear of openness and vulnerability. They are likely to be self-centred and narcissistic. They look to hold power in situations and to be in relationship with others they can control, others who fit into the fawn or freeze dynamic.

    Their core wound is abandonment but they can become the bully and breed other bullies. In adulthood, they can become corrupt in business or political power, looking to control the people and situation around them. They can be harsh and judgemental, quick to defend their own position against all attackers.

  2. The flight type – this style of response is similar to the fight response in that it is hard to form deep relationships. The essence of this survival mode is busyness, immersion in activities in the pursuit of perfectionism. They are, in effect, running away from their original wound and whatever danger or abandonment that represents.

    This pursuit of excellence brings with it a high adrenaline charge and can result in anxiety and even panic disorders in the extreme. They could well be risk takers (adrenaline junkies) and their intense personalities can draw them into addictive behaviour, gambling, alcohol, video games etc

  3. The freeze type – is not a natural socialite, is often reclusive and hard to find at the emotional level, often being withdrawn and lost in their own fantasy world. They may show addictive behaviour, perhaps with computer games and TV. The freeze response is normally a consequence of a deep childhood abandonment that makes the heart opening to new love too risky to contemplate. They rarely have a good relationship history to draw upon.

    The dissociation involved can result in the release of natural endorphins to numb the pain, but where these are insufficient there is a tendency towards drugs, alcohol and substance based ways to extend their numbness to the world around them.

  4. The fawn type – this is the people pleaser, the perpetual lift provider, the volunteer. They may become this way by an over-bearing parent that encourages them to sacrifice their own autonomy to prioritise the parental needs. They are vulnerable to powerful people, especially those in the fight response who can take advantage of their easy nature and lack of boundaries.

    As with all of these archetypes, this is not a response that generates deep connections or friendships. The fear of abandonment sits at the core of the behaviour.

As these survival programmes sit deep in the primal brain, they need to be met at that level. This part of our brain sees life in pictures rather than words, so a visualisation that calms that part of the brain can switch off excessive flight, fight, freeze and fawn responses. Imagine you are walking in the woods amongst the gentle backdrop of bird song; suddenly, all sound stops, the birds become still. Instinctively, this is a warning of predators in the area and I suspect all of us would respond in a similar way, taking a moment of stillness just to check that everything is OK. Our more sophisticated human brain would then over-ride that primal response and remind us from a more rational place that there is no danger in these woods, assuming that is the case.

The point is, we respond to stresses from a very basic place, from the animal instincts within us. The following visualisation recorded by Chris Waters from Spirit of the Inca and reproduced here with her permission, will help switch off that flight or fight response. Feel free to use it on yourself or your children whenever you need it:

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