Flipping Fight/Flight/Freeze Into Freedom

You’re likely familiar with the term, “fight, flight, or freeze.” It’s what happens to all sentient beings when we experience fear for our survival. The sympathetic side of our autonomic nervous system turns on, and a whole network of physiological reactions engage to help us survive a potentially deadly situation.

Even though we usually talk about “fight, flight, or freeze” in that order, I’ve noticed that in nature, most animals work their way through those survival reactions in the opposite order. For example, let’s say you’re hiking in the woods, and you come across a deer. If you happen to notice the deer before it sees you (unlikely, but it could happen), once the deer does see you, it will first freeze in place to hopefully “disappear” from your awareness. It perceives you as a threat. Then, if you don’t go away and the deer still feels threatened, it will run away at lightning speed. If for some reason the deer can’t run away, or perhaps you’re physically too close for comfort, the deer will fight with hooves and antlers to defend itself. (Also unlikely, but it could happen! Check this out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=332NKyfklY0)

In nature, the order I usually see is freeze, flight, and then fight, depending on the intensity of the fear response. I ask myself, does the autonomic nervous system in humans behave all that differently from the one in animals?

In last month’s blog post, Unnata Trainer Jordan Anderson gave us some great tips for working with fear while pushing ahead towards a goal. In today’s post I want to discuss specifically the “freeze” reaction to fear, and how to notice it. It is my personal opinion that the freeze response is the first line of defense most of us rely on when stressed. And yet, it can be the most difficult of the three responses to recognize when it is happening both in ourselves, and in others. By its very nature, “freeze” is trying to be invisible.

Me, frozen and unable to be productive

During the beginning of the Covid-19 “pause,” almost everyone was required to stay indoors and reduce interactions with other people. I noticed a lot of discussion on the internet about productivity, or more accurately, a lack of productivity. It seems many people were experiencing an inability to work as much or as well as they previously could. Some people attributed their lack of productivity to the learning curve of working in an entirely different way. Others said it was because they felt more comfortable at home, or more distracted at home. Some claimed it was due to stress or fear. And for some, the diminished productivity was caused by a combination of all those factors.

When investigating my own lack of productivity, I recognized there were many days I felt “frozen,” but I would have to adopt different tactics to get “unstuck,” depending on my dominant mental state at the time. For me, I discovered my lack of productivity always boiled down to one of two emotions: fear or laziness. If I was afraid, I could adopt a kind and gentle attitude to coax myself into productivity. However, if I was feeling lazy, I would have to adopt a stern and authoritative attitude to push myself into productivity. While fear and laziness might seem like opposite ends of an emotional spectrum, they both led to the same result: a lack of getting things done. And to complicate things even more, my mind could flip from one emotion to the other in an instant. This made finding my way out of immobility extremely difficult, as I flipped my inner voice from supportive to strict fast enough to create mental whiplash.

In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, Yoga Sutra 2.3 states:

“Dissolving the five Kleshas, or veils, brings forth the radiance of the Divine Self. The five Kleshas are: Avidya (innocence of our Divine nature), Asmita (undue trust in the individual self), Raga (excessive fondness of fleeting pleasures), Dvesa (excessive avoidance of unpleasant experiences), Abhinivesah (elusive awareness of immortality).”
[translation: Nischala Joy Devi]

Me, trying to motivate myself to work

When I think about it, my first emotion, fear to the point of immobility, was a form of Dvesa – excessive avoidance of unpleasant experience. My second emotion, laziness to the point of immobility, was a form of Raga – excessive fondness of fleeting pleasures. I wanted to be comfortable, and I didn’t want to be uncomfortable! Through the lens of Yoga philosophy, it’s not surprising I could flip from fear to laziness in an instant. They have the same underlying cause: fear and laziness are both Kleshas. They are veils, or mental illusions, that obscure our ability to think clearly, and truly see the inner self or spirit.

Flipping quickly between fear and laziness was like going through an eye test while being fitted for a new pair of glasses. “Which is more clear, A? or B? A? or B?” Except in the case of fear and laziness, A and B are both cloudy lenses that obscure reality rather than clarify it!

The mental veils of fear and laziness caused me to “freeze” in response to stress. And I would posit that the other freeze responses that people mentioned as obstacles to productivity (being overly distracted, or challenged to learn new technology quickly) are also signs of the Kleshas in action: attachment and aversion, Raga and Dvesa.

Aversion makes sense as a response to fear, but how does attachment to comfort relate to our autonomic nervous system’s “freeze, flight or fight” pattern? We usually don’t associate comfort with fear! Patañjali follows up in the next sutra:

Sutra 2.4:

Innocence of our Divine nature (Avidya) creates a fertile field where the dormant seeds of the other four veils take root.
[translation: Nischala Joy Devi]

Here, Patañjali says that the source of all Kleshas is “innocence of our Divine nature,” meaning a lack of belief or connection with our spiritual self. When our understanding of life is limited to only the material world, then the fear of death and the shortness of life will drive all decisions on how to live during that “one life.” Consequently, we excessively avoid any discomfort and excessively cling to anything pleasurable. Just like avoidance of pain, attachment to comfort is another expression of the fear of an inevitable end to the presumed one and only life.

Flipping quickly between attachment and aversion, between laziness and fear, kept me in a state of mental paralysis, but it also kept my eternal spirit hidden from my awareness. Now, as I slow down and observe my mind, I can recognize when the two sides of fear flip. I can identify laziness and fear as Kleshas that obscure my ability to think and see clearly. And as I look beyond these veils, I can catch a glimpse of spirit. With any luck, I might even become more productive. :)

About the Author

Michelle Dortignac, founder of Unnata® Aerial Yoga, is an E-RYT 500 certified Yoga instructor of over 20 years, while during most of those years also being a professional aerial acrobatics performer. Her most influential Yoga teachers include Dharma Mittra, Alan Finger, Cyndi Lee and Susan Braham.

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