Fight, Flight or Freeze…

neural_pathwaysWhat’s your relationship model?

I was recently in a conversation in an online group I’m involved with. It’s a truly nourishing support circle; I’m in 2 or 3 now and they always offer me food for thought and a chance to reflect on my habits, belief systems and core values. I get to be really heard in expressing who I am and what I feel, and to hear the different perspectives of others which is how we grow right? In one of those circles, we were discussing relationship patterns last week, it was our chosen topic – what have we learnt about ourselves in relationship? What patterns do we observe we may have and how can we learn from them so we don’t keep repeating them ad infinitum. Human beings love repetition it seems but some habits are habits we’ve built up over a lifetime, emerging from trauma or passed on through generation to generation in our families, and they’re habits that don’t actually serve us, more they limit us.

The image above shows a scan of the neural pathways in the brain (how beautiful it is!) and in there, we find the routes through which messages travel into our autonomic nervous system, and in particular our sympathetic nervous system, the one which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses.

Through this conversation in our group, one person expressed how they feel when uncomfortable or when they get triggered in their primary relationship; they go into ‘combat mode’, fight in other words. In that moment it struck me that my response has almost always been flight, so this began to intrigue me – what if we are all still really animalistic in our behaviour patterns in relationship? What if these responses apply to how we relate in all aspects of our lives, and not just in relation to where we are or what we’re doing? In other words, if we’re being chased by a sabre toothed tiger, flight would be a normal and healthy response, but if we’re emotionally vulnerable rather than physically, why does the same pattern kick in? My growing theory is that we all have one of these 3 patterns as a major driver, and that we’re actually not much different to our ancestors; we’re still fighting, fleeing or freezing in the wake of the perceived ‘danger’.


On reflecting more, I recognised that many people I speak with have adopted one of these coping strategies in their intimate relationships – we either go into combat, we flee, or we freeze. What this last one may look like in relationship is that we literally lose ourselves, we become frozen, no longer recognising ourselves in the middle of our relationship dramas or habits. We’re stuck and we have no idea how to unfreeze ourselves. I was always pretty good at maintaining my sense of self in relationship, so I don’t relate to this one so much, but I hear many people expressing that they do.

My enquiry has begun to intrigue me – what if we are actually way more animalistic and instinctive than we realise? What if those primal survival patterns are so deeply embedded in our DNA that they continue to drive us, making us blind to alternative options for coping in relationship. Is it a survival issue? Has relationship become the hunting ground of our time, and if so, how do we change that?

We communicate! We become willing to listen, to hear the other, to know our own triggers so well we can risk becoming vulnerable without freezing, fighting or fleeing the relationship zone, and instead opt to take responsibility. We develop a response ability! We adopt Marshall Rosenberg’s method (or other) of non violent communication and realise we don’t have to take everything personally, to continually react, and instead, we may choose to listen, reflect and respond.  We adopt the willingness to listen to the perspective of our partners, friends, colleagues and more, and we change the habits.


When we do this, and I mean really do it, we know that our responses come not from a defensive place, but a place where we can find solutions, resolution and peace. We develop self awareness and become able to see another possibility open to us beyond the terrible trio of ‘fight, flight, freeze’ – we can now add in ‘free’. We are free to change the habits, we are free to listen and really hear, we are free to clear ancestral baggage, neolithic patterns and limiting relationship destroying behaviours, and surely that can only be a great thing? What are your thoughts?


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