by Mark Gorkin, LICSW
Expanding the Stress Response through an Organic/Poetic Mindset: "Fight and Flight" and "Freeze and Flow"
According to the leaders of a two day conference on "alternative health," language frames the essence of health and illness. For example, the workshop leaders were uncomfortable with the use of the word "stress" regarding the human condition. Stress, of course, was first defined as a property of metals, specifically an ability to withstand tension. For the instructors, stress terminology turns the body into a machine, something that can then be operated upon and repaired. With a mechanical mindset, however, the essence of the individual (also from my perspective, the team) as a living and evolving (also devolving) organism is easily lost. The human capacity for natural growth and innate healing when mind-body-spirit and the relationship with nature are in harmony can too easily be bypassed or undervalued. Before the mid-20th century takeover by "stress" terminology, the much more human notion of "grief" captured the tensions, trials, and tribulations and "sadder yet wiser" triumphs or, at least, "growing pains" of everyday life.
Of course "stress" and "grief" do not have to be mutually exclusive. Despite a moniker of "Stress Doc" ™, as a person who has known the highs and lows of mania and melancholia, the language of grief has spoken to me for many decades. I have worked diligently to cultivate a voice that conveys the depths (and darkness) of soul as well as a light and enlightened sensibility. And I've even reached for that elusive soaring spirit. Consider these haiku-like lines penned years ago for an article on burnout;
For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes,
One must know the pain...
To transform the fire to burning desire!
In contrast to the myriad metaphors and possibilities of poetry, the language of labeling, especially with diagnostic intention -- he's manic-depressive, she's ADD, the team is "change resistant" -- often places a person or group in a categorical box, limiting the range of human/group perception and potential, that is, restricting the breadth and depth of how others see the person or group as well as how the individual/collective sees himself or itself. Again, the notion that something fundamental gets lost in translation when replacing an organic perspective with one too mechanical, categorical, or abstract was captured in a quote shared by one of the instructors. (I don't recall the actual source.):
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Conversely, there is the liberating quality of language when it allows us, to paraphrase the 20th century Nobel Prize winning chemist and physicist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, to see what everyone else has seen and to think what no one else has thought.
Using Natural and Liberating Language to Expand the Stress Response Framework
My goal is to craft a language that expands adaptation possibilities, especially in our 24/7, "do more with less" seemingly spinning scarily out of control world. For example, can expanding our conception of the stress concept help transform a hazardous landscape into a more purposeful, productive, and peaceful mindscape? Actually, a key concept from the original "stress response" lexicon helps us evolve a richer connection between mind, body, and nature. Most are familiar with the Darwinian-like survival notion of "fight or flight." Now consider the addition of another seemingly oppositional pairing – "freeze and flow." Let me define these terms in such a way that the enlarged stress response framework allows you to go from survival coping to more creative adaptation, encouraging your individual mind-body-spirit to develop and express its natural gifts and talents.
Expanded Stress Response Inventory: Perceptions of Threat and Control
Here is a 2x2 matrix depicting the two "stress response" pairs – "Fight and Flight" and "Freeze and Flow." The four responses are determined by the interaction of two variables influencing stress coping -- "Perceived Threat" (and "Perceived Control." Each box has both a primary response and a (secondary response) in parentheses.
A. Two Major Variables
1. "Perceived Threat" (PT) – "Low-Moderate" and "Moderate-High"
2. "Perceived Control" (PC) -- "Low-Moderate" and "Moderate-High"
B. Four Response Permutations and a Nexus Point
1. Fight = Mod-Hi PT and Mod-HI PC; (Flow) is the secondary response
2. Flight = Mod-HI PT and Lo-Mod PC; (Freeze) is the secondary response
3. Freeze= Lo-Mod PT and Lo-Mod PC; (Flight) is the secondary response
4. Flow = Lo-Mod PT and Mod-Hi PC; (Fight) is the secondary response
Expanded Stress Response Matrix: "Fight and Flight" & "Freeze and Flow"
| Mod-Hi || Flight (Freeze) || Fight (Flow) |
| Perceived Threat || Fertility || Point |
| Lo-Mod || Freeze (Flight) || Flow (Fight) |
| Low-Mod || Perceived Control || Mod-Hi |
"Fight or Flight" and "Freeze or Flow" Framework
1. Fight or Flight. The familiar survival pairing begins with a disposition to evaluate a stimulus/situation in terms of the level of perceived threat, potential for harm or demand, and to actively engage with or disengage from the stressor. (Part of the evaluated gestalt includes internal stimuli such as physiological arousal and muscle tension.)
a. Fight Options: Fight response frequently occurs when "Perceived Threat" is "Moderate to High" and "Perceived Control" is "Moderate to High"
1) Confident Perspective. When a person believes he has both the external resources (e.g., proper tools, support personnel, etc.) and internal coping mechanisms (e.g., self-confidence, critical knowledge, etc.) to manage or cope with the challenge, demand, or threat then there is a tendency to actively engage these situational or "psycho-social" stressors.
2) No Choice or Ego-Driven Perspective. Of course, sometimes one must stand and fight, even when outnumbered, as retreat – objectively or not (and the not/knot often involves perceptions of "respect" or a wounded ego) – is dismissed as an option.
3) Loyalty, Injustice, or Threat to Freedoms Perspectives. Also, a strong sense of loyalty or outrage at an injustice or threats to vital freedoms may trigger an "I must take a stand" or a "No one's ordering me around" mentality.
4) Greater Good Perspective. Here's a final flight scenario: despite the option for retreat, one decides to give (or potentially give up) one's life for the greater good of the group or larger society, or to meaningfully sacrifice for some ideological ideal. The range of examples includes an individual soldier shielding a wounded comrade with his body to, alas, a fanatical suicide bomber.
b: Bridge between Fight and Flight:
1) Walk Away Perspective. Then again, facing no imminent or meaningful threat that must be immediately addressed, an individual may strategically decide to walk away, or to temporarily lay low, saving or restoring his or her energy for more important future battles.
c. Flight Options: Flight response frequently occurs when "Perceived Threat" is "Moderate to High" and "Perceived Control" is "Low to Moderate"
1) Survival Instinct Perspective. When a challenge seems overwhelming, confusing, or beyond one's resource capacity for effective active engagement, a desire or instinct for survival compels movement away from the external hazard; this is often an instantaneous or "gut" reaction,
2) Worn Out Perspective. Conversely, sometimes we "throw up our hands" and give up or drop out after considerable wear and tear. (And overstaying a "no-win" situation may well be a formula for burnout. See below.)
3) From Relief or Regret to Rejuvenation. At times, flight evokes an immediate sense of relief. Of course, retreat may also be associated with a sense of failure and shame. In either scenario the individual lives to potentially rehabilitate, rejuvenate, and/or strategize anew and possibly fight another day.
4) Cutting Edge High Flying/Failing. So flight may well lay the ground for future fight. Remember, taking "flight" does not only mean "running away." It also may connote blasting off or soaring, for example with an idea. And remember, failure quite often lays the ground for new insight and a more effective approach. As the artistic genius, Pablo Picasso, noted, "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."
And speaking of destruction, when not tempered with some down to earth pragmatism, many a high flyer has crashed and burned. This brings us to our second double-edged pairing.
2. Freeze or Flow. The new survival pairing also begins with a disposition to evaluate a stimulus/situation in terms of the level of perceived threat, potential for harm, or demand, but the response is less willful action and involves more "letting go," acceptance, reflection, and "go with the flow" spirit.
a. Freeze Options: Freeze response frequently occurs when "Perceived Threat" is "Low to Moderate" and "Perceived Control" is "Low to Moderate"
1) Panic Perspective. In terms of survival, one association to "freeze" is a "deer in the headlights" sense of panic and paralysis. A constructive problem-solving response eludes this "frozen" individual. Clearly, this can be a maladaptive coping reaction. However, I want to focus on more positive conceptions, yet these notions of "freeze" also avoid overt action.
2) Absorbed Perspective. Freeze can involve being set in space-time which, from a problem solving standpoint, may mean being deeply immersed or absorbed in a difficult or thorny situation.
3) Cool Down Perspective. A cool down period encourages pausing and pondering, perhaps akin to getting some "R & R," taking time to reflect and repair, or repeating and replaying an action in slow motion, in order to conceive a new perspective or paradigm.
4) Future/Fertile Use. Also, one freezes an item to sustain its longevity or viability for future use. Bringing these last three perspectives together reveals a notion of "freeze" that transcends existence or endurance. A capacity for the freeze response, for pausing in place, staying engrossed over a significant period, immune to (or hibernating from) outside distraction, while cultivating silent yet active gestation, may allow for the incubation of an intuitive and uncommonly deep understanding of and imaginative response to a critical challenge.
Bridge between Freeze and Flow:
1) Seasonal Rhythms Perspective. A vital analogy comes from the rhythms of nature: the thawing of barren, dark, seemingly interminable hidden winter sows the ground for life's flowing and flowering fertile spring.
b. Flow Options: Flow response frequently occurs when "Perceived Threat" is "Low to Moderate" and "Perceived Control" is "Moderate to High"
So let's creatively flow. Clearly, flow goes beyond the survival response and into the realm of thriving and an accompanying sense of serenity and/or joy. More specifically:
1) Optimal Challenge. In a flow state the individual typically engages a situation that is optimally stimulating and challenging. The threat or demand is usually somewhat beyond the person's problem solving repertoire; the challenge, though, does not feel overwhelming.
2) Basic Confidence. However, because of previous practice and experience one carries a basic sense of confidence and competence; unexpected contingencies or uncertainty are more intriguing or exhilarating than anxiety producing.
3) Willingness to Let Go. Or, because the person in the situation has an overall sense of control, paradoxically, he or she is comfortable "letting go" or being "out of control"; it's easier getting into a more exploratory or playful mode.
4) Meditative and "Aha!" States. And similar to the positive "freeze" state, being lost in the moment may erase a sense of time and place, sometimes even yielding an ineffable, out of body sensation or a sense of holistic connection with the cosmos. (Consider this yin-yang "oppositional" possibility: freeze, as in a deep immersion/contemplation experience, suddenly triggers an "Aha!" which then naturally leads to problem-solving or performance flow.)
Whether experiencing "good stress," an "adrenaline rush," a "peak experience" or Zen-like serenity, depending on the situational challenge-context your mind-body-spirit translation often becomes, "Being psyched," "Bring it on," "In the zone," "Mystical moment" or "Go with the flow."
Bringing It All Together
Personally, my imaginative and innovative best rarely emerges from just "fight or flight" or "freeze or flow." Creativity usually involves both pairs of seemingly yin-yang-like stress adaptation responses: I experience a simultaneous interaction or, perhaps more accurately, a purposeful and passionate and even playful and graceful grappling with the seemingly contradictory states of "fight and flight" along with "freeze and flow."
And there's precedent for such a multi-faceted conjunction. For example, the 19th century father of American Public Education, the pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey, captured the potential of such a contradictory and contentious spirit, with his complex valuing of "conflict":
Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stimulates observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the "sine qua non" of reflection and ingenuity.
So this nexus of "fight or flight" and "freeze or flow" adaptation, of seemingly oppositional stress response energy transformed into creative problem solving I call the "fertility" point.
Ergo, my formula for engaging with stressors in a more insightful, imaginative and innovative manner:
Fertility = "Fight and Flight" & "Freeze and Flow"
Productive Procrastination: Can there really be Life after Deadlines?
Let me close with a personal example whereby grappling with the tension brought on by the paradoxical pairs of "F"s opened up the creative floodgates. The post-traumatic memory involves writing two-minute "Stress Brake" health features for local and syndicated radio. Time was running out on my week's quota. The studio taping was less than 24 hours away. I'd been stuck for a couple of days. No idea seemed fresh; no passion was flowing. The anxiety was mounting. When finally, it hit me...The pass in the impasse. I would write a personal piece on writer's block. Now the creative juices flowed: "Don't Clock the Writer's Block or Premature Impatience Will Sow Creative Impotence." (In those olden days I was into big titles. I remember one piece on burnout called, "Breaking Out of a Hell of a Shell or Don't Feel Too Sorry for Humpty Dumpty...He Needed to Hit Bottom.")
Okay, I'm pumped; only feeling slightly claustrophobic. The adrenalin is surging. Will I do it in one take? Take a breath. Stay focused. I'm looking at the engineer. His head is nodding ever so slightly. Suddenly, he gives me the finger...
When trying to write, do you ever stare at a blank page or blank screen that seems the perfect mirror of your blank mind? Your teeth start gnashing and you're into heavy breathing. But it's only a false labor...There's no birth of new ideas.
Why can't writing be a race, ideas blasting from inner space with bursts of brilliance and subtle grace? Ha! For me, that starting block is a mental block building to a wall of frustration. It's the test of time. Will banging my head against the wall sooner produce a breakdown than a breakthrough?
Fortunately, I'm hardheaded. Eventually, the wall and my brain will have a meeting of the mind. Concrete ideas and bits of information and imagery will become fertile chips off the old writer's block. Can I avoid ambitious false starts and just dabble with my mental fragments? Can I play my chips into an outline, a puzzle or a kaleidoscopic pattern and explore sequences, combinations and designs?
What happens if I freely associate with my mind and body? Might I discover a heart that sings and a mind that dances? Will this unlock my writer's block? Aha!
A penny for your thoughts
but a dime for a rhyme
that allows me to climb
from the base to the sublime.
Suddenly, an old voice questions: "Do you know where you're going?" "Probably not. But I do know how to get there"...with feedback! Will I now submit this verse and prose to friends and foes? They may bite my hand, but I usually get back more than I feed them.
I think it's time to sleep on all this. Maybe a script will come to me tomorrow.
Language clearly makes a difference in our conception of health and specifically whether our perspective on stress has a balance between the mechanical and the organic. First, by increasing the stress response from "fight and flight" to also include "freeze and flow" you expand adaptation possibilities. Second, by capturing the natural properties of these terms and by allowing them to interact in space-time, productive and imaginative tension is generated and the final stress response "f"-word comes into play: "fertility." And there even may be "life after deadlines!" Here's a framework both for semantic and creative resourcefulness and a formula to help one and all...Practice Safe Stress!
For more information visit www.stressdoc.com.