We humans have a number of moods that are snapshots of the world, priming us for action on a reaction basis. To manually process the world and make moment by moment decisions takes far too long, so our emotion driven reaction system is an automated shortcut. When it works, it is great, when it fails, it can give us all of the wrong signals and responses.
Below it the video version of this post.
One of our moods is fear.
Fear is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what enables us to cross the road safely, use dangerous tools like fire, helps us cut up food and so on. We even frequently seek out fear for fun activities, such as rollercoasters, driving fast, parasailing, going on holiday and so forth. Anything that is new or risky is triggering our fear response – but often in a good way.
We evolved fear as biological organisms primarily to stay safe from physical threats. This could be a predator that might attack you, an obstacle such as a cliff that could hurt you, or a non-animal threat such as fire. When our ancestors started working in groups we added social fear to the list, as sometimes that predator was not an animal out there, it was another one of us from outside our tribe, or sometimes that predator was someone in our tribe. A threat to our social status can really get our attention.
We continued to evolve our fear as we became more thinking creatures. There are ideas of self, of future and complex constructed fears, such as financial harm, spiritual harm and existential harm that affect us.
With all of these threats, it would be easy to assume that we would develop multiple threat response systems. However evolution is quite lazy and will coopt an existing system, adapting it to a new but related use. Thus our fear response to a predator is the same fear response we have to heights, to social embarrassment, financial harm and existential threat.
At mild levels fear will ramp us up a bit to deal with a likely threat, while keeping our minds quite clear and helping us to focus on the threat. This can feel exhilarating and we often seek this kind of feeling. However prolonged exposure to a mild threat, or series of threats, can exhaust us. We don’t want to stay ramped up for too long. We are more evolved for a series of fear sprints with cool down periods between the threats, than we are for a fear marathon of continual grueling pressure.
The higher our assessment of fear is, the more our bodies ramp up. There is a threshold where our minds stop focusing on the problem with clarity, and shift to focusing on the problem with 1 of 3 panic solutions – freeze, flight and fight.
Freeze is all about hoping not to be noticed by the predator. Running could draw the attention of the predator and there is no point fighting if the predator just goes away. We have coopted this response for some other problem management, which is part of what drives denial and bargaining for loss and change; passive and passive aggressive for anger. Our bodies get ready for freeze to fail, so our bodies ramp up ready for either flight or fight. Freeze should be the first response to a tangible immediate threat, but sometimes we skip it.
Flight is the desire to get out of here, even before the threat shows up. The biological logic of this is that if you aren’t there, then the threat can’t kill or harm you. Avoiding a problem is a survival strategy, but it doesn’t always promote good outcomes, just good enough ones. Anxiety coopts this response for running away from unknown threats, which has the consequence of not allowing you to challenge your fear. We also frequently avoid our responsibilities in the false belief that if we don’t try, then we can’t fail – but failing to act is still failing.
Fight is a head on direct confrontation of the problem. Often this is an aggressive act and taps into the anger response system. However our fight might be a desperate act with little aggression. A fight doesn’t have to be physical, it could be verbal, social and cognitive attacks. Aggressive fights are about doing the most damage to win, often escalating to dangerous levels, and as such we accept harm to ourselves in order to survive or win. Defensive fights are about creating an opportunity to flee. While this should be the last measure against a threat, if we have been in continual violent situations, including non physical violence, this frequently becomes our first port of call and we are frequently told we have anger management issues.
Those are our fear responses – freeze, flight and fight. When push comes to shove, one of these three should keep us alive. They aren’t necessarily the best choices though – they are our default get out of trouble last ditch effort solutions. Which means while we should survive the encounter, it is likely to be sub-optimal. What I’m trying to say here is, if you’ve got to these three choices, you are in trouble. The goal of fear management is to find a viable path out of danger before having to rely on these emergency biological responses.
While the three actions are different, the body’s preparation for freeze, flight and fight is the same.
Our hind-brain will hit the panic button and induce a number of body system changes. Our pupils will shrink in daylight to give us better focus so we can see the threat better, or at night they will dilate to drink in the light – it is better to see a blurry enemy than not see them at all. Our blood will leave our outer skin and gather into our muscles and organs – which decreases incidental bleeding and maximises energy to our muscles and organs. This will often leave us looking pale. Chemicals will be dumped into our bloodstream which will make us both more sensitive to physical stimuli such as touch, sound and smell, while at the same time dampening our pain sensitivity, so we can work through the injuries to get to a “safe” place to heal. Our heart rate will increase to get these vital chemicals and energy around our body. Our system will want to void our stomachs, bladder and bowel so that we are both lighter and smell awful – not as appetising to our predators. This is why you always need to go to the toilet before you go on stage, or feel light headed when you are nervous. We will breathe faster, but to avoid annoying our digestive tract it will generally be shallow chest breaths, aka panting. We will also start to sweat in anticipation of strong physical exertion and in response to the excess heat our now stressed bodies are creating.
This is a sympathetic nervous system response. That is the automatic system that hypes us up for maximum effort and minimum thoughts. It is hard to choose what to do when you feel like this, because all decisions are reduced to the concepts of freeze, flight or fight.
To get our sympathetic nervous system panic response under control, we need to trigger a parasympathetic nervous system mechanism – a calm down effect.
We will cover those in our next post.