Much has been written on the topic of Fight, Flight or Freeze (FFF) with regards to the necessity of each reaction, when appropriate, in order to preserve or protect ourselves in the face of a threat or imminent danger. Essentially, throughout our evolution these subconscious responses have helped ensure our survival by protecting us from life threatening situations, like an attack from a sabre toothed tiger, or being stomped on by a woolly mammoth. But, although incredibly useful way back then, the modern day human lives a slightly different lifestyle, with very different survival requirements to those of our early ancestors. One significant issue today, is we Homo sapiens haven’t developed any ‘evolutionary’ responses to deal with modern day ‘threats’. So instead we react and behave instinctively to perceived threats in a manner similar to that when we were walking around dressed in skins and carrying clubs. And too much FFF can have quite a deleterious effect on our health and wellbeing!
I was watching the news a few days ago and was horrified to see a 24 year old man punch a woman in the throat during a football match. He was a supporter of the Fremantle AFL football team and was obviously not happy about how the game was progressing against the opposition Hawthorn players. The woman, who was nearby in the stands, took it upon herself to protect her two children by standing up and asking the approaching thug to calm down and sit down because he was scaring her kids. His reaction was abominable to say the least, as he took it upon himself to handle the perceived threat (the woman), by using the first of the F’s (Fight) and proceeded to punch her in the throat, and threatening to do the same to her children. Here’s one of many articles written about it, if of interest: http://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/afl-premiership/afl-finals-2015-crowd-violence-at-subiaco-oval-spoils-fremantle-hawthorn-preliminary-final/story-e6frf3e3-1227544762485
Sitting in my living room over 4,000km away, just watching the incident at Subiaco Oval unfold, made my heart rate increase and my blood boil to say the least. I am a father of two young children and I completely understand how the mother found the courage to stand up and confront the thug in order to safeguard her children. Sadly, she was probably quite fortunate that other fans in the crowd were able to leap to her defense – and I say sadly, because the whole ugly scene should never have eventuated in the first place.
Our primal defense responses have got a lot to answer for. Nowadays more than ever before, we as a species are beginning to really experience the negative effects of our relatively rapid growth and development. Our brain design loci response to stress and anxiety, is something that evolved over time to help us deal with short term threats, dangers or crises. The activation of our stress responses helped to ensure our survival by optimising our physical and mental reactions. These responses include all kinds of things such as elevated heart rate, enhanced brain function, increased blood pressure, release of stress hormone (Cortisol), suppression of the immune system, release of glucose in muscles, release of adrenaline and so on and so on. The problem is of course when we are activating our stress responses on too regular a basis, the effect on our overall health and well-being begins to take its toll – not only on us as the individual, but also on those around us.
After watching that very ugly scene unfurl over the weekend, my mind began wandering back in time, recalling many other disgusting, horrific and completely unnecessary episodes involving the civilized human behaving in a totally abhorrent manner. I recalled news stories involving various sporting events where fans clashed, fights broke out and in some instances riots took place in the streets. I sat back on my lounge, closed my eyes and deliberately set about remembering all the personal experiences I have encountered over the years where my stress responses had been activated. It didn’t take me long before I decided enough was enough. It was becoming a bit too unpleasant to dwell on.
After regathering my composure I decided to do a test. I have a heart rate/blood pressure monitor which I regularly use to check my health state. I have a resting heart rate of somewhere between 55 and 60 beats per minute (bpm), and blood pressure around 130/80. I spent a few minutes with my eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply and through a process of self-hypnosis (something I do a lot because of the wonderful therapeutic effect it has), I totally relaxed myself physically and mentally. I then hooked up my monitor and took a reading. I was close to my usual range with a heart rate of 59 bpm and blood pressure of 134/82. In this relaxed state I then closed my eyes and replayed a range of ugly and disturbing incidents over in my mind. When I reached a point of feeling quite unsettled I took another reading. Not surprisingly my heart rate was up to 76bpm and my blood pressure was up to 139/84. Although this was a very simple test it still demonstrated to me how just thinking about unpleasant events can have unhealthy stress responses. Over time this surely has to be bad for your health.
So, what to do about it? Well, if you experience stressful situations on a regular basis be it on the way to work, at work, school, when you are just out and about, or even in your own home, try and identify what your usual response type is. Do you respond ‘instinctively’ in an aggressive manner (Fight), or do you tend to deliberately remove yourself (Flight) or do you do nothing and just mentally absorb the punishment (freeze)? Whatever it is that you tend to do, you can counter this by undertaking regular mental relaxation exercises. If you are unfamiliar with hypnosis or meditation, it can be as simple as closing your eyes, regulating your breathing and with each breath out mentally suggesting to yourself that you are relaxing further. With each breath out focus on all the muscles and muscle groups in your body, from your head, shoulders and arms, right down through your back, legs, feet and toes. Visualise and imagine your muscles and whole body relaxing and after a few minutes you will actually begin to experience an improvement in your emotional and mental state.
Relaxation is obviously a very powerful method of dealing with stress and eradicating the negative effects of stress response. That said there are also other very effective means that you can apply, when closing your eyes is not appropriate (such as driving in peak hour traffic and being subjected to the behaviour of a road rage imbecile). If you find yourself in a similar situation you can try ‘re-framing’. I used this technique a few weeks ago when I was subjected to the violent gesticulations of an enraged driver who had zoomed up behind me, and after managing to get past me (I was doing the speed limit), he flicked up his finger and shook his fist and continued to weave dangerously through the traffic ahead of me. I was initially taken aback, but just as I was about to let myself react (Fight), I decided instead to re-frame the driver as Porky Pig and in my mind I suggested that he was very late for pre-school, where he urgently needed to be so that he could set about playing with his piglet friends in the sand pit. By re-framing him in this manner I actually felt myself smile and I laughed out loud as I watched his head and finger bobbing about as he angrily disappeared out of sight.
Whether you choose to re-frame or relax, or use any other method of dealing with stress and stress responses, just being mindful of how you react and how you respond to others, will go a long way to improving your overall well-being. Pope Francis addressed the US Congress a few days ago (usually quite a stressful place) and gently reminded everyone of the most golden of rules, namely “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. If we all lived by this simple philosophy can you imagine how much better our world would be?