The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Elusive Trope's picture

    Fight Flight Freeze

    Fight Flight Freeze sounds like some surreal schoolyard playground game, some weird mix of Red Rover and Simon Says.

    Yet is another take on the Fight Flight Response. I think viewing our response to a (potential) threat as Fight Flight Freeze Response is a more accurate and provides some insight, I believe, into what many would call the political apathy in this country.

    I think everyone is aware of the notion of Fight or Flight, and that it was a emergent feature of our evolution in an effort to survive and reproduce. One of our distant ancestors crosses a path with a tiger and his or her body goes into a response that among other things increases the heart rate and prepares the muscles. He or she is ready to either fight or flee as fast as his or her feet can manage. Freezing was rarely seen as third option in this response to a survival.

    Common sense would tell dictate that is probably not a smart move. As Taylor Clark explain in his book Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool

    …this freezing response probably seems somewhat wrong headed; wouldn’t it be better to get a head start and dash away from the potential threat immediately?  Actually, no.  In the wild, many predators react to movement, and if you abruptly go rigid there’s a chance that the tiger that you just spotted won’t notice you.  Think of freezing as a state of defensive preparation.  The body gets the same jolt of adrenaline that readies it for fighting or fleeing, but the brain has calculated that at least for that moment, your best odds of survival come with no action at all.

    Of course, most of us in this modern rarely have to deal with tigers on a regular basis. Our threats are of a different nature. One example that I have experienced recently experience is the infamous job interview for a position you really, really want.

    The interview is going along swimmingly. You're poised, provide concise to-the-point answers, making good eye contact. The one of the interviewers asks you question that comes from out in right field, not only that, but also is, in your opinion a really stupid question and has nothing to do with the job or how one would handle the responsibilities. Obviously you can't fight the person verbally, and definitely not physically, and still keep you in the running for the job. Fleeing the interview would take you off their list of potential candidates in the blink of an eye. Yet all of the fight or flight response has taken over, which means your lower (reptilian) brain is in control, not your frontal cortex.

    So you freeze. Unable to fight or flee, you sit there in an almost catatonic state. The adrenaline (or more accurately the epinephrine and norepinephrine) is flowing. There still enough of the conscious mind active to realize that sitting there and not giving a response is a incredibly bad occurrence. But your frontal lobes just aren't working that well, so you stammer out something, which you probably can't remember after the interview except for bits and pieces, like trying to remember a dream.

    As someone who has, among other things, general anxiety disorder. I am more likely than the average person to perceive threats and, thus, go into this Fight Flight Freeze state. One key point to remember is that is not just a threat to one physically that can kick this response. A threat to one's identity or sense self-worth or faith or community is more likely to be encountered in our day-to-day lives. One the issues it brings up is working or just plain living in conditions that kick in the Fight Flight Freeze response on a regular basis, but neither of the three are going to help you survive. It may even cost your job or send your relationship with a wonderful person spinning down.

    So what does the Fight Flight Freeze response have to do with political apathy? A lot. One watches the news or reads some news websites and all one sees is the country and the world going down to hell in a hand basket. Even if you truly understand the threat of global warming, you do nothing, in effect you freeze, because you see the reality of human societies and countries as being such that it is hopeless no matter how much you reduce your carbon footprint. And since one doesn't have a rocket ship, one surely can flee it.

    In this information age, the apathy might just be a case of the Freeze response as one is flooded with war, water shortages, global warming, politicians bickering rather getting anything done, earthquakes, crime in the streets and so on. A person who is deluged with all the awful things happening or about to happen in a sense goes into a Fight or Flight Response and all its physiological manifestations. The person can't fight, or at best he or she can focus on one thing like homelessness or malaria around the globe, maybe two causes, and still meet all the demands of daily life. So the person Freezes and the physiological responses still remain. To stay in such a state is basically not healthy nor enjoyable.

    So rather than experience the Freeze, the person just doesn't watch or read about the news or what is happening politically, except for checking out some looting after a peaceful protest. News becomes Tom Brady getting suspended for four games because deflate gate. Apathy, thus, can be seen as reaction to avoid the Freeze. The only way to "wake people up" and "get them involved" is, in many cases, to facilitate a sense that it actually is going to make a difference in the long run, rather a futile gesture of a world collapsing in on itself.

    [photo was created by Graficny]


    I don't watch much news.  It bothers me when the local news covers the death of small children. I am in a large TV market so this kind of news is too often for me. I read most of my news on the internet and watch the clips I want to.  I think I stay pretty well informed. 

    I think my point is regardless as to the means by which a persons keeps him or herself "pretty well informed," there are some who have a Fight Flight Freeze reaction to this information. Some will get a sense of hopelessness, which is different in regards to the physiological reaction. Hopelessness is the result of abstract reasoning in the frontal lobes and generally one just becomes listless when they experience such a state of mind. For many people, I am proposing, when some do make an attempt to keep informed experience, to put simply, the experience adrenalin rush of the Fight Flight Freeze response. Since most of the information is about events and things (such as bacteria that has evolved to be immune to antibiotics) they can't they can't fight or flee, they have a persistent state Freeze, which is not a pleasant experience (it is after all a response to a threat). So they actively avoid this experience by avoiding information that would make them a "well informed individual."

    Your point is well taken, but you neglect to mention a prevalent problem in America today, supported and nurtured by media empires and the fortunes of billionaires.  Ideology, which Krugman describes in his op-ed today as tribalism.

    Ideology acts as a filter for facts. It kills the process of assessing reality.  Adherence to the ideology trumps critical thinking, or the need to evaluate or change lifestyle. Republican ideology obviates the need for fright or freeze, it channels output exclusively into an all out 'fight' with the target group of the ideology.

    It's why in extreme cases, which give stark insight into the darker recesses of human nature, ideologues of the right in WW2 Prussia polished their inlaid wood floors hours before the Red Army rolled into town and burned them to the ground. Ideologues of the left defended Stalin even as they were sent to slave camps or execution, fight, flight and fear were nullified as ideological loyalty was seen as deliverance.

    I agree with you and Krugman, and I don't think there is any conflict between what is being said about ideology and my take on FFF syndrome.

    Krugman writes:

    Just to be clear, I’m not calling for an end to ideology in politics, because that’s impossible. Everyone has an ideology, a view about how the world does and should work.

    So what ideology does in many cases is informs one as to who is a threat and who isn't. Most people agree we need to modify our immigration policy, but it is ideology which dictates whether you view the illegal immigrant as a threat, or the extent of that threat. You can agree there is some negatives in terms of tax dollars being spent etc, but not a threat to one's way of life. Are those two men holding hands kick in the fight flight freeze response? My brother while attending Seattle Central Community College to get his welding degree was put on sedatives because seeing all the gay people was creating this response. He knew enough not to fight, and couldn't flee, as when he was on the bus going up to Capitol Hill, so he had left was the Freeze, the heart racing, the body  preparing to fight or flee.

    Ideology is not the only factor that determines what we consider a threat. Walking down a path and seeing a king cobra rear up causes the FFF response regardless of ideology.


    Yeah, but...I'd rather come across a rattler on a remote desert trail (and often have, once a massasauga rattler crawled between my feet, my wife told me not to move) than some nut toting a gun. My ideology says guns are more dangerous than snakes, death rates back it up.

    I had a friend back in Muncie who was from a holler who made a god living catching rattlers by hand. They would get the venom from the snake and sell it for good money. They would only do this in the Spring when the snakes were just coming out of hibernation, so were just a tad slower.

    And some ideologies tells them any black male in a hoodie is a threat as dangerous as any rattler.

    A great subject, Elusive. Thanks for the reference to the book.

    I'm usually surprised afterward at how cool I seemed to be in the face of a physical threat. I have a reaction like, "when it's over it's over but I'm going to try to get out of this if I can". It's the existential threats I have the problem with but I have learned to just ride them out.

    The job interview is always a great example and you may remember the days of "stress interviews" (the chair with one short leg) and psychological counseling. Here, a little self disclosure can be a good thing: "You have me stumped there, Madam, and I don't know if it's because I don't have a ready answer or that the question itself strikes me as so irrelevant---may I ask why you would ask such a question?" 


    I was just telling someone about my reaction when I was trying to dive into the irrigation canal and saw that I wasn't going to make the cut out section, going head first into about three inches of water (I could see the little rolling hills in the mud that a stream makes). I just thought very calmly, "This isn't going to be good."

    People respond to threats in different ways. A person may be able to kayak wild rivers with having his or her nerves shattered, but come unglued at the office if they think someone is trying to compete with them for the boss' affection. Another person may be the complete opposite.

    Those who don't deal with existential threats just are baffled by those who do. Reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

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