The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response is NOT FUNCTIONAL When There is NO DANGER!
Fighting OR Running Away is ONLY Functional When There IS REAL DANGER!
Sorry for YELLING, but this is a message that “the Culture” needs to hear.
When faced with real danger in the present, it’s highly functional, (even super-functional, even miraculous), for our nervous systems to go automatically, faster than thought, into the fight-flight-freeze response for the few seconds or minutes that the danger lasts. This is a wondrous, built-in, survival tool that we and all mammals share. (see Fighting or Running Away is Super Functional)
“Thought Danger” — The Unique Problem for Humans
We human beings, however, have a problem that most other mammals don’t have (as far as we know). We have the incredible ability to think ourselves into danger – to think ourselves into fight-flight-freeze – when there really is no danger at all . . . . . . I think of this as “thought danger” as distinguished from “real danger.”
“Real danger” is a fire going on in your house/apartment or in the house next door. “Real danger” is a tornado bearing down on you or gale force winds in the midst of a hurricane. “Real danger” is someone pointing a gun at you and threatening to shoot if you don’t give him/her your wallet/purse or car. “Real danger” is a ferocious large dog or other wild animal (wolf/bear/tiger) threatening or attacking. “Real danger” is in the midst of an active battle zone. “Real danger” is clear and present imminent danger to your physical, biological safety/survival and/or to the physical, biological safety/survival of the people close to you.
“Thought danger” is afraid you won’t get into to the graduate school of your choice. “Thought danger” is being afraid of getting to work late and your boss yelling at you. “Thought danger” is afraid of asking that pretty girl for her phone number or to go out on a date with you. “Thought danger” is afraid of public speaking. “Thought danger” is afraid your wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend will leave you/dump you. “Thought danger” is being afraid of making a mistake — at work, at school, on a date. “Thought danger” is being afraid you’re not “good enough”– not as good as other people — maybe even defective.
“Thought Danger Fear” is a Serious Physical Health Problem for Us Human Beings
“Thought danger” triggers “thought danger fear” just as “real danger” triggers “real danger fear.” This distinction is important. It is the “fear” that triggers the fighting or running away or freezing response. Some stress response researchers posit that it might be more appropriate to refer to the biological “fear/fright system” which triggers the “fight or flight or freeze response.”
The problem of “thought danger” is not a little problem. It’s a BIG PROBLEM . . . . . . because it’s NOT FUNCTIONAL for our nervous systems to be triggered into the fight-flight-freeze response when there is no danger. Remember the cascade of immediate automatic physiological changes to your body — to your whole system — when your fight-flight-freeze system is activated? (See our article Fighting or Running Away is Super Functional). “Thought danger fear” can activate our nervous systems into fight or flight or freeze just as automatically, non-consciously, as “real danger fear.” This is a huge impact on our bodies — to go into the fight-flight-freeze response from just a thought!
Now it wouldn’t be such a BIG PROBLEM if most “thought danger” lasted only seconds or minutes like most “real danger.” As stress response researchers and health and fitness professionals who study and apply this research/wisdom have discovered and keep discovering . . . . it’s not functional for our bodies, our body systems, to go out of internal balance into fight or flight or freeze for more than a few moments without getting back quickly to re-balance. (See our article Internal Balance is Biological) Fight-flight-freeze is functional only for seconds/minutes at a time, whether it’s triggered by real danger or thought danger.
And yet, we human beings have the incredible “ability” to keep “thought danger” going for hours, or even chronically for months, or sadly, for years.
Just go back and read the list of physiological changes activated in your body when your nervous system is triggered into fight-flight-freeze. That’s a lot of human energy being wasted, depleted, with just the daily, garden variety “thought fear” that many if not most of us got going on every day.
I’m not suggesting that a little bout of “thought fear” causes all the body changes that a full blown “real danger fear” incident might trigger, such as being suddenly in the midst of an earthquake, but I am strongly suggesting that much (if not most) of the human stress going on in most places in the world (not in the midst of a disaster or active war zone) is caused by “thought fear” rather than by “real danger fear.”
It is NOT the thought that creates the problem. It is the FEAR that the thought generates. This is why “thought danger fear” is such a BIG PROBLEM. It’s the FEAR that triggers the Fight-flight-freeze response and the cascade of immediate fundamental physiological changes to the body. It’s the energy-depleting physiological changes in the body from the activation of the fight-flight-freeze response that cause all “the stress” that people are experiencing on a daily basis, and there is more and more research establishing a clear link between stress and disease. [See for example this recent Science Daily Article.]
“Thought Danger Fear” is Fantasy Fear
“Thought danger fear” is fantasy fear. Yes, the situation may be very important, difficult, challenging — even crucial to one’s life and well-being — and call for effective problem-solving, but going the next step — from the thought about the problem to fear about the problem — is fantasy and not functional at all. In most situations in daily life there is not an immediate (or even realistic) challenge to one’s life, to one’s survival — which is when (and only when) the automatic fight-flight-freeze response is functional. Fear is only functional for real danger problems — not for most everyday problems — even the most challenging or annoying ones. Think of it this way: the fight-flight-freeze system is “nature’s way” of providing us with an automatic problem-solving system for life danger problems. This is awesome, even incredible that we have this built-in danger problem-solving system. (See Fighting OR Running Way is Super Functional).
But most of our “life problems” are not life danger problems, not immediate danger to survival problems — such as whether I get into the graduate school of my choice or whether I get an “A” on my biology final exam or whether the boss will yell at me for getting to work late or whether that girl will turn down my request for a date or whether my wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend will dump me or speaking in front of a group, etc. etc. etc.
A simple reason thought danger fear is not functional is because when one’s fight-flight-freeze system is triggered by thought danger fear, even if only a little, one’s mind is handicapped to do effective, realistic, in-the-present, problem-solving. One’s mind is going to be doing some unique variation of fighting or running away or freezing. Neither fighting nor running away are functional for studying or taking a school exam or asking a girl out on a date or speaking in front of a group.
As I’m writing on this article today I’m even experiencing this common pattern myself. I had the goal to finish this article 3 days ago and now I really want to finish it today, but I’m not satisfied that I’ve really succeeded in communicating my message clearly and effectively. Being self-honest there is some “thought fear” that this is not good enough yet and I am noticing that I’m not making much progress, but rather kinda subtly going from anger/fighting with the article and the related attitude of “just get it done and move on!” with an angry irritated fight tone to myself. And then the “run away” pattern on the other side of just give up, it’s not worth the effort and “I’ve got a cold anyway and who cares if it’s not done today or not the best!”
To problem solve effectively one’s mind needs to be open, to be at choice, to be capable of considering different alternatives, different problem solving strategies. If one’s mind is “in fear” (even just a little as in my example with finishing this article) or in the common example of public speaking or asking a pretty girl out on a date, then one’s physiology will be “in fear” and one’s brain and nervous system won’t be open, at choice, capable of considering different problem-solving alternatives.
The Culture (the Human Culture) really needs to be educated that fear is not functional when there is no danger.