The “F” Words

Fear, Flight (or Flee), Fight & Freeze

We have had a ton of learning over the past 20 years or so about our Flight/ Fight response to Fear (and stress in general). Yoga Teachers often talk about how we respond to stress “as if” we are being confronted by a tiger. Its a primal response to Flee (flight) or Fight. We react. We’ve talked a lot about how these reactions to outside stressors can be depleting to our Ojas (life force) and can cause endless physical, emotional and mental harm.

I think of Flight in the horrible scenario of a hit and run. We highly judge people to flee an accident but from the perspective of the “F” words, it makes total sense that that might be a response to such a horrible incident. Even if someone is in an accident, its amazing how the running away from it can happen (if it can physically happen). In a less dramatic scenario, when I’m walking my dogs and a loud bang occurs…they go to run. Dogs sometimes are known to run away when they hear fireworks.

I think of Fight in the scenario of road rage. You cut someone off (sorry about that!) and they flip out on you. They are afraid. You scared them. That’s why they are screaming at you, ready to then smash their car into yours in some extreme cases (which makes no sense considering why they are angry in the first place – but its a reaction, not a thought-out plan). Or, someone breaks into your house and you go immediately to kill the b*s&*@d! (Apologies for the implied language.)

Ayurvedically I could see Flight as a Vata response and Fight as a Pitta response. Movement is involved in both. One away from perceived (or real) danger and one towards. Are they helpful responses? In some cases, yes, they would be. Absolutely. In other cases, they are not. And in many cases, they are not even remotely helpful and can be quite harmful. In chronic responses to life stresses they just use up so much energy wearing you down and possibly making you sick and/or a very unpleasant living partner.

I used to go to a spin class where the teacher kept saying, pretend a bear is chasing you. For me, that didn’t work. It made for a unpleasant chemical release in my body and I noticed I wanted to respond instead like the one we don’t talk a lot about – “Freeze”. It comes up time to time in my readings but not often. Freeze is my go-to choice in response to fear or stressful situations. I mean, I’ve done the Flight and the Fight thing also but I’m realizing I do a lot of Freeze. It too is just a normal, sometimes helpful response to danger. Maybe if you freeze the bear won’t see you or it will think you’re dead so move on. Maybe if you slam on the breaks and stop, the truck coming at you will miss your car.

We don’t think of Freeze much as a stress reaction because it is a non-action. It isn’t maybe obvious to yourself or to those around you. But, I see a lot of it in myself and in those I teach. Freeze has a lot of contraction. Its the one when you’re in an accident and you tense up. Its the one when life is stressful and you can’t move forward, you feel stuck. You’re afraid, literally, to make any decision. You avoid the bills, you pretend things that are happening aren’t because you can’t cope with them. In a horrible scenario, think of a child who is being yelled at. They freeze, they ball up. They can’t fight. They can’t run away anywhere.

I’m so sorry I’m using some very awful examples. I can feel myself responding in my own body just from talking about them. So, I just sat back and took a deep sigh breath and let out that tension. This is one of the reasons sighing breath is used in yoga classes. The truth is in small ways and big ways we have all incorporated Freeze into our stress response. It’s normal. It does have its place in our survival.

Think of ice. Its hard, contracted, cold, immovable. It is Vata. Too much Vata can present both as over movement (like trembling) or paralysis. How can we melt ice? Think warmth. Primarily we melt ice with warmth. And so comes slow, gentle yoga. Yoga that is gentle, incorporates movement but slowly. It takes more time to warm-up. Its grounding and calming. It creates a gentle consistent heat in the body vs. sudden movements.

That’s the breath (release), that’s the yoga style (recover). What else? Be gentle with yourself. Accept that there are all these stress reactions. Stop judging yourself for not responding to stress like a Buddha. Recognize what is happening. Take small, non-demanding steps to incorporate more of the good stuff to help you be prepared to what we can’t change (like change itself, stress and fear). (Articles to come on Vata, Pitta and Kapha.)

Kaphas, by the way, respond possibly the best to stress because they are the least likely to react or over-react. They may though, head to another “F” word to cope – Feast. Overeating is a hugely employed stress response by many. Food can be comforting. It can fill you (literally) so that you feel heavier (literally). That heaviness can feel grounding. Feasting, together with Freezing can lead to a whole host of physical problems if it goes on too long and can also lead to certain mental health issues.

When we feel safe we can thrive in optimum ways. Our energy can go to living and enjoying life vs. depleting it by Fleeing, Fighting, Freezing and Feasting. How can you feel more safe generally and more often so that you experience less stress and are able to recover sooner from the inevitability of stressful situations? Some things to think about.