Fight Flight Freeze, Part 2

Practical ways to help you change your view of the world and become less stressed.

In the previous article, I explained how our bodies’ natural fright/flight/freeze response can lead to self-perpetuating chronic stress. When we get stressed, we’re often told to “just relax”. If only it really were that easy! If you find yourself feeling stressed out a lot of the time, then this article may help you.

When you’re stressed, the problem lies not in the events happening around you, but in the way you perceive them. When you change your perception, you can reduce your stress levels. For example, consider the hypothetical case of ‘George’, who has been suffering from chronic stress for several years. He is stuck in what he perceives to be a demanding job, which he hates but which he needs in order to support his family. He’s been repeatedly passed over for promotion and he sees no way out. Every day is like Groundhog day. He may blame external factors for his position and the same worries keep going round and round in his head, day after day. The problem here is not the job, it’s his thinking. He has become stuck in a rigid pattern of thinking that always leads to the same outcome. When I learned to ride a motorcycle, my instructor told me, “Where you look is where you will go”. The psychological corollary of that statement is, “Where you think you are going is where you will end up”. George has consistently negative thoughts about his place in the world. He tells himself things like, “They will never promote me, I will always be stuck in this job”. It’s possible that underneath that thought, George has the beliefs, “I am un-promotable”, or, “They don’t appreciate me”. This kind of belief is common. Many times, I’ve heard people in business say things like, “One day they’re going to find out that I’m a fraud and I can’t really do this highly-paid job”, which can create a sense of motivation, provided that the belief does not override all others. George’s problem is that he’s worked himself into a hole. His fears regarding his job and his suitability for it have become overriding and are therefore in control of his immediate destiny. Each time he comes up for promotion, he talks himself into not getting promoted and he uses the experience to confirm what he believes about himself: “See? They passed me up again! That proves I will always be stuck here”.

So, how can George change his beliefs? Surely, the answer does not lie in those mealy-mouthed so-called “motivational” statements that appear on Facebook and on the walls of offices across the country. “You are a wonderful person and you can achieve anything you want to”, reads George. “Yeah, right, pull the other one”, is his response. George is not a negative person. He desperately wants to change. He just doesn’t believe that he can. There are some simple ways that George, or anyone, can start to change their beliefs about themselves. Three are described in the paragraphs that follow:

1. Accept where you are right now.

It is a sad irony that more you try to change, principally by trying to ‘think’ your way out of your problems, the more likely your situation is to remain unchanged. Conversely, when you accept yourself precisely as you are, then change will occur as a natural result. I know this sounds incredibly glib, but you can easily find a wealth of information on the subject. Just do a Google search for, “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”.

2. Give yourself plenty of internal space.

The fight/flight/freeze response is characterised by a blank mind (or reduced thinking) and a sensation of physical constriction as your body prepares to respond to a perceived threat. One of the kindest things you can do for yourself when you feel like that is to bring the sensation into your full awareness, remind yourself that it is your fight/flight/freeze response and consciously tell yourself it’s OK to feel that way. If you need to, take yourself off to a place of safety, whether that’s by yourself, with someone you trust, perhaps sitting quietly, going for a walk, doing some sport, etc. When you help yourself like that, you will be able to think more clearly make better sense of your stress feelings.

3. Talk to someone about how you feel.

This is potentially harder said than done because in British society, the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude is still prevalent. Well, it’s bullshit (yes, that’s how strongly I feel about it). The so-called ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude does nothing except keep people alienated from one another. It encourages people to bottle up their feelings and, in some cases, go slowly insane. More commonly, it just leads to an inordinate amount of stress.

If you can find someone whom you trust and talk to them about your feelings, then you can begin to change your perception of yourself and of your stressful feelings. That person could be a family member, colleague, friend or a counsellor. Often people choose to see a counsellor because a counsellor can offer a fresh, unbiased perspective and a counsellor is duty-bound to make your needs and your welfare a priority.

11th June 2015