Anxiety and fight, flight, or freeze

I suppose we all know what the fight, flight, or freeze response is.

In the wild, the freeze response is extremely valuable. You see a bear in the near distance and freeze. While you are frozen, you decide what to do. Quietly pull out the bear spray if you have any or just stay still in the hope the animal will leave.

The freeze response gets bad PR when we think of it as only the “deer in the headlights” response. That happens to deer because they do not understand that your car is moving at 60 MPH. If it were going at walking speed, the freeze response would protect the deer by giving it a few more seconds to consider more options.

It might be better to call the “freeze” response the “neither” response, or the “neutral” response or the “neither and keep thinking” response. Fight, flee, or do neither.

Rather than panic and run at or away from the bear, we do neither. Just stay still and consider our options. Time often dilates in such situations and most people probably have at least a few memories of making a very good decision during that brief time dilation.

In the human social realm—the realm of human signals—anxiety is often a sign of a stalled fight-flight response.

What I propose is that the next time you feel anxious about anything, consider the “freeze” or “neither and keep thinking” response rather than fight or flight. Call up and explore your freeze response. It is a very rich and useful response.

You can practice on a small anxiety-inducing incident, even manufacture one.

Do something that normally causes you to feel slightly anxious, but rather than feel anxious choose the “freeze” response instead. If the incident is small enough you will be able to engage in a cool, neutral brain state that greatly resembles beginner’s mind of the Zen tradition.

This technique moderates our instinctive response to a stressor by adding a layer of metacognition that guides it to what we want it to be.

It makes us mindful that we have more options than simply feeling anxious. Since we are social animals, human social stressors very often induce outsized responses that get stuck in a panic mode.

With just a small push from a metacognitive vantage, we can transform counterproductive anxiety into a more open and creative “freeze” response.

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