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  • Writer's pictureDr Martine Prunty

Fight, flight or freeze?

How Do You Respond in a Crisis?

In an emergency, I am not your person. The fight or flight response that we are told is the usual automatic response when we experience something stressful does not occur for me. Instead of fight or flight, I am “squeal and freeze”. Or “freeze and cry”. Sometimes I freeze, squeal AND cry. So whilst I have the training to objectively help someone with their assertiveness skills, the irony lies in that this is a huge character flaw of my own.

Normally I’m listening to people tell me they’ve had affairs, or their partner did, or they’re the “other” person, and I’m trying to help them work through it. This time it was a little different.

Think about the classic example of when something goes bump in the night. Are you one of those who sits bolt upright in bed, then goes to investigate? Do you wake the person lying next to you so they do it? Or do you do what I do? Freeze in useless panic and do nothing?

The fight or flight response is explained everywhere, just ask The Goog. But if you can’t be bothered and need a reminder: it is an automatic, physiological response when something happens that we perceive to be stressful or scary. We either have an innate drive to escape to save ourselves or to fight the threat. This innate response to threat has been with our species since the dawn of time.

But there is a third “F” and it stands for Freeze, which is when you hold perfectly still while you consider your next move. I do this one, and my brain shuts down and basically goes on hold while it waits for the threat to pass. And sometimes this response feels just a little bit useless.

Picture this – I was at home with my husband and 3 children. Because it’s lock down. Where else was I going to be? I was about to do a zoom call with my naturopath to discuss my recent stool sample results.

There was a knock at the door. I excused myself as interruptions are predicted in this chaotic work-from-home scenario, raced to the front door and in barged an acquaintance from the local school.

She needed to talk to me. It was urgent. She’d wait.

The woman sat herself down in my living room and I returned to my zoom chat about poo….6 metres away.

I was quite anxious and my initial thought was that she was going to tell me someone had molested one of my kids and they hadn’t told me, or that one of my kids might have sent one of hers some porn online due to all the increased screen time (with less parental supervision) that lockdown brings.

Fortunately, it wasn’t either of these, but the reason was also on a different level of “wild”.

“Don’t try and tell me you’re not having an affair with my husband”, she burst out.

One of her friends had witnessed her ex and me sitting and talking outside the local coffee shop and deemed that we must be having some kind of post-coital coffee.

To say that I was affronted is an understatement. But instead of communicating how inappropriate it was to turn up, come inside and relay to my husband what she believed to be going on while he was working and while she was waiting for my call to finish, I burst into tears.

Yep. I cried.

I suppose the message here is that there are times when we know where our next threat is coming from. Perhaps you’re afraid of needles and feeling apprehensive about your upcoming COVID-19 injection? Maybe you’re afraid of flying but after lengthy travel restrictions you are aching to go overseas and visit someone but scared to get on the plane you’ve been able to avoid for so long?

But sometimes, we can’t plan for stressful events and they take us by surprise. When this happens your biological predisposition will usually dictate some kind of automatic response. Sometimes that will be a useful one, and sometimes it won’t. Rather than thinking about what you could have done or said that would have been better, why don’t you practice a bit of self-acceptance?

In the case of the great stool-health-interruption-affair-allegation, I chose to do exactly that. To accept that I froze and cried instead of defending my good name.

In this instance, had I “spoken up” and shown my own outrage at such a hurtful allegation and violation in my home, it possibly could have resulted in an increase in this person’s aggressive manner, and certainly would not have helped in her summation of me. In fact it likely would have confirmed what she believed to have been true. So rather than criticise myself, I’m deploying some compassion – for both her and myself. After all, it usually takes some pretty traumatic event to behave this way. Perhaps by just being quiet, listening and crying (admittedly in shocked panic), knowing that I am lucky enough to have plenty of supportive resources around me, was all the antidote I needed.

And then I accepted a large drink and an even bigger hug from my husband.

The one I didn’t cheat on.


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