Fight and flight responses are generally recognized and accepted as the norm when it comes to fear. We are all familiar with them. Just like the boys in the 1983 classic movie “A Christmas Story” so comically portrays, a bully pops up and we run as fast as possible to get away. But at some point, perhaps when enough is enough, just like Ralphie, our rage becomes a fight for our lives.
But fight and flight are not the only behaviors that follow fear. A kind of numbing paralysis known as freeze is more common than we recognize. Often mistaken as cowardice, apathy, laziness or even collusion, this third survival response has gripped so many people in our times of increasing fear.
When we cannot seem to defeat or outrun the predator a ‘deer in the headlights’ freeze response can be life-saving. Helpless to do anything about a horribly dangerous situation, we dissociate from what is going on. Over the years in my work as a clinical counselor, kids and adults showed up completely numbed out in my offices. They had been diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders when more often than not were actually showing symptoms of the freeze response.
It manifests in those who are sexually abused, those suffering from substance use disorders, PTSD, and in battered spouse syndrome to name a few. Chronic dread, panic, and terror rob them of the ability to stay in the present. Available resources become impossible to access. Being paralyzed allows them to not feel the horror of what is (or seems to be) happening. This can go on for years, long after the menacing situation has disappeared.
“They’re used to self-medicating. They’re used to escape. They want to find that place where they can’t see their pain from.” ~Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries
In ever more anxious times, the tendency to numb out is also increasing. It seems quite likely that our over-reliance upon screens, drugs, alcohol and other ‘addictions’ are freeze responses to chronic fear exposure. Mass shootings, threats of terrorism and a cacophony of negative talk coming from everywhere including the pulpit have created a sense of helplessness and a need to disconnect.
We must begin to understand this if we are to empower ourselves to change what is happening. Our power has not been taken away even though it may appear to have been. This is a time to encourage action in those who are isolating. Together we can overcome the powerlessness caused by fear and fear mongers. The solution is not complicated. Here is the message; Bring an abundance of love to the table. Fear cannot coexist with love. Do something to help and do it now.
1 Ask for Help
NOTE: It cannot be emphasized too strongly that those who are suffering from trauma and clinical dissociation caused by fear must seek the assistance of professional helpers to get relief and to return from being missing in action. They cannot pull themselves up by the bootstraps nor can they just get over it. Trauma resolution is possible using such therapies as Trauma Informed Care among others.