We are naturally programmed to avoid pain. When we experience bodily or emotional pain, we instantly know that we are in trouble. This perception of danger triggers fight, flight or freeze. These responses are normal from an evolutionary standpoint and can be very useful when directed at an appropriate situation.
However, when chronic pain exists, the fight, flight or freeze response can also become chronic. This can cause huge problems in life.
Worse still, these responses become programmed and automatic. This means that patients will be stuck in these survival modes for days, weeks, months or years at a time.
The mindbody is just not designed to accept this constant level of acute threat and subsequently fails at every level of functionality. This is precisely why chronic pain and illness sufferers endure so many different negative life modifications due to their symptoms.
Chronic pain sufferers love to use the term stuck.
They will say to me, I am stuck.
I ask them, How so?
They ponder the question for a moment and say that they are stuck in their present and can not hope for a better future.
I smile and ask them if they are really stuck in the present.
They contemplate and pause.
I ask them where their main problems come from. I ask them where their negativity comes from. I ask them why they can not move forward today, right now. This is where they get it. Now there is understanding.
Most chronic pain and illness sufferers are indeed stuck: Stuck with their pain or illness. More importantly, they are stuck with negative emotional patterns that are caused by the disconnect between mind and body. They are stuck in the future of worry or stuck in the past of regret, shame or anger.
They believe themselves to be fearful and are therefore displaying the classic signs of fright response in their health. These signs include chronic health issues, chronic pain, chronic muscle tension, digestive problems, cognitive deficiencies, fatigue and emotional turmoil.
These indicators have profound effects on their behaviors, as well, which brings us to fight, flight or freeze. While some experts classify these reactions as 3 very separate responses to perceived fear, I have seen them exist all together in some people, although not often at the same moment in time.
When faced with a real threat, fight is a good option for humans. Evolution has taught us that we are strong and can fight our way out of many troubles, when pressed into action. This can be a very healthy response when the threat is imminent and dangerous. However, when this response is caused chronically by anxiety or worry, we find negative behavior patterns emerging in almost every case. Aggression, passive-aggression, frequent confrontation, defensiveness, victim mentality and other negative patterns emerge from illogically extended periods of fight response.
Flight describes the process of running away from a problem. Once again, evolution has instructed us that if faced with a terrible and powerful threat, sometimes the best way to survive is to literally run away. When applied emotionally, we find a chronic pattern of flight sourcing many problematic behaviors, such as unproductive escapism, drug use, alcohol use, denial, excessive sleeping and isolation.
Freeze is the least productive reaction to extreme fear, describing a condition wherein the person faces a threat and crumbles before it, literally remaining motionless in the face of danger. Maybe the thought is do nothing and the threat will pass. The truth of the situation is usually much more grim. Freezing in the face of actual danger will usually get a person injured or killed. Meanwhile being petrified in the face of perceived danger (worry or anxiety about the future) will cause mindbody freeze and horrific disconnect. The body is frozen into literal inaction in the present, while the mind is alone and anxiety ridden in a yet-unwritten future. Similarly, freeze can occur in the present when people are desperately afraid of repeating the very real mistakes of their past.
In almost all chronic pain sufferers that I have worked with, there is some degree of chronic freeze response demonstrated. This is the feeling that most people describe as being stuck. They know intuitively that some disconnect exists, they just can not figure out what it is, or more importantly, how to remedy it.
Chronic freeze response is one of the main contributors to lasting illness and pain. It is certainly one of the primary causes of that tense, uncomfortable feeling that so many of us endure.
Learning to unstick yourself is a major goal of my coaching programs. Similarly, implementing practices to counteract chronic fight, flight or freeze responses will also be important parts of moving forward in life.
One of my favorite passages from the Japanese classic Hagakure describes the ideal life for ancient warriors to pursue:
The way of the samurai is one of immediacy…
I leave you with a very simple thought for contemplation:
Life is here and now. Do what needs to be done now. Learn from the past, but do not live there. See potential problems in the future, but allow present actions to reassure you that you have safely navigated clear of these perils.