Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

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