The Experience of Fear

It's not just fight or flight.

Posted Jan 16, 2018

In the wake of #MeToo, many question the inaction of some who have found themselves in situations where they were physically or sexually threatened and/or violated. Without discussing particular situations, the problem is not that men or women who have been assaulted do nothing; the problem is that the vast majority of people lack a comprehensive grasp of the multi-dimensional aspects of a fear response. We talk extensively, and almost exclusively, about fight or flight, as if those are the only options. But there are others, and we, like other species, benefit from having a variety of strategies in our fear-response toolkit. So let’s discuss the lesser-known responses to fear: freeze and friend.

By Hermanus Backpackers (Great White Shark Cage Diving) [CC BY 2.0 ]
Source: By Hermanus Backpackers (Great White Shark Cage Diving) [CC BY 2.0 ]

Some people are of the mistaken belief that how one responds in a threatening situation has to do with the individual's emotional, mental, or physical strength. Then what of the mightiest of sharks, the top of the food chain, the most feared creature in the ocean (unnecessarily, I might add) — the great white shark? They freeze (do nothing) in an effort to protect themselves when they have been turned over. They find this exceptionally life-threatening. The inaction on the part of the shark is not weakness; rather, it is the single best tool it has at its disposal in that particular situation. The shark isn’t doing a lot of cognitive processing and choosing to respond this way: Its survival instinct, if you will, is deciding that for it.

The reality is that inaction can save your life. For instance, I first discovered that I shared this trait with some of the most fearsome of animals when I fell off the back of a truck and was catapulted down a hill. As soon as I felt my body begin to leave the back of the pickup, I went limp. I have no recollection about my trip down the hill, but observers remarked that it was spectacular. Everyone, including myself, was shocked when I "woke up" to find that I had not broken a single bone, nor so much as sprained a joint. The only evidence of my journey was a minor scrape on one knee. We know that during a sexual assault, many people, men and women, children and adults, feel as if they “left their body.” This is well-documented and represents a clear example of this phenomenon. There is no ambiguity: It is absolutely a valid (though obviously passive) form of physical defense from predators/danger, from mates who are harassing you, and other hostile members of your own species. The drawback of this response, whether you be a shark, human, or mouse, is that if one remains too long or is forced into remaining in a “freeze” state, death is likely. Why? Immobility, or freezing, is an extreme reaction to a life-threatening and fearful situation, and the body will eventually shut down.

When it comes to consent, if you don’t understand the difference between someone who is actively engaged and responsive and someone who is frightened, you are the problem. Ask questions, stop and look the person in the eye. Are they smiling back at you? Are they looking to the side? Are they asking you to do something different? If you pretend you don’t know the difference, you are the problem. If they have told you that you are hurting them, and you continue, they may very well become nonreactive. But this is not consent; this is fear.

Another tool in the arsenal is the friend response. This loosely means that in response to a threat, an individual appeases, befriends, and may even smile and engage in conversation with the source of the threat. It, too, is a valid strategy in response to what is perceived as a life-threatening situation, regardless of what you may “think.” It is what I used to do with a former abusive partner. In a situation where I felt threat was imminent, I sometimes appeased and pacified. This is a well-studied and documented approach to conflict resolution in humans and other species, especially where there is an imbalance of power or strength.

By Rod Waddington CC-BY 2.0
Source: By Rod Waddington CC-BY 2.0

Even though I personally think that gorillas are the nicest of all the great apes, male mountain gorillas regularly subject females to aggressive displays. What do females do? They respond with appeasement as a way of ending the aggression. This is hardly unique: Fish do it. Birds do it. Even water striders do it. Males do it. Females do it. Kids do it. Adults do it. What do these other species not do? Judge each other for how they handle or respond to fearful, threatening situations.   

We, and other species, have evolved the ability to rapidly adopt an appropriate strategy to respond to life-threatening, fearful, or aggressive encounters. There is fight, flight, freeze, and friend. The regulation of these responses is hardwired into our brain circuitry, including the amygdala, which to a large extent instantaneously decides which strategy will help you survive. If you are among the many who insist that if those who don’t fight or flee are complicit or sending mixed messages, then you are part of the problem. How people respond is constrained by their need to survive, and stating from the sidelines how someone "should" respond is meaningless and dangerous. We need to do a better job of cultivating empathy, generating intolerance for violence and aggression, and developing strong communication skills.  

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