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Overcoming Fear - Education Focus: Fight/Flight/Freeze

Updated: Apr 22

"an unpleasant emotion caused by the threat of danger, pain, or harm"
"a feeling of anxiety concerning the outcome of something or the safety of someone"

Fear is one of our most primal instincts. It may save our life, it is a very necessary emotion with very real physiological responses. Despite all this it is also one of our most unwelcome emotions.

The last 2 years have given us a lesson in fear. What has become clear is although fear may be abstract, how we respond to it is critical. Do we look inward? Or do we lash out? What does our reaction say about us and can we do better? My greatest fear was always failure. It was one of my first big, and one the hardest, lessons to experience - but as with all good stories it made me who I am - something I believe many of you can resonate with. I fell pregnant in second year varsity, one of the greatest stereotypical fears of any parent and most especially for said child. It changed my life forever, in ways that now I am so grateful for!

The fear of something is almost always worse than the reality of something. It is a scary emotion, it can paralyze you (literally and figuratively), but it is also one of the most useful emotions and can save your life too.The lesson I learnt back then was fear does not change outcomes - I do - and I could either be defined by one moment or use the experience to learn, grow and be so much more. Fear lets us know we are out of our comfort zone, sometimes we need to heed the warning and sometimes we need face it and grow - the choice is yours.

In one of my favorite books a character tells a Cherokee legend to a boy who was afraid and giving in to that fear, paralyzed, the story resonates with me still.

Story of the Two Wolves

There’s a story of the two wolves in Cherokee culture in which a grandfather teaches his grandson an important life lesson.
The grandfather tells his grandson that there is a battle going on inside all of us. It is a battle between two wolves that live inside us.
He says, “My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ that live inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”
The grandson thinks about it for a while and says, “Which wolf wins?”
The grandfather replies, “The one you feed”.

The story of the two wolves teaches us that our future is in our control. It’s up to you to feed your courage, it is up to you to feed your mind everything it needs to achieve success and contentment in life. It is not out of your control - it is your choice.

Education Focus: Fight or Flight response

"The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee"

Our bodies are amazing. We can go from calm and serine to adrenaline filled in a second. The fight or flight response was first described by Walter Bradford Cannon. Now better described as fight, flight and freeze (amongst other descriptions) - to include other reactions to this state of stress.

This process starts in the brain and then in the adrenal and pituitary glands which secrete hormones causing a cascade of events in the body -

  • Increased blood flow to the muscles activated by diverting blood flow from other parts of the body.

  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats in order to supply the body with extra energy.

  • The blood clotting function of the body speeds up in order to prevent excessive blood loss in the event of an injury sustained during the response.

  • Increased muscle tension in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength.

Researchers have shown that low and medium levels of this stress hormone, called cortisol, improve learning and enhance memory, whereas high levels of the stress hormone have a bad effect on learning and memory. Basically is is great in the short term and not so great for the long term. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

This is not good and something we have either experienced personally through Covid, or at least seen others experience. This is a conversation around the effects of chronic stress. So what can we do to overcome?

  • Relaxation/meditation/mindfulness - studies have shown it can physically lower blood pressure

  • Physical activity - not only does it make you feel better, breathe deeper, get stronger - the benefits are endless.

  • Social support - confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions all add value and quality to our lives. A problem shared is a problem halved.

All of this is so much easier said than done. It can be so hard to move forward when we feel trapped - so start by taking the first step. A journey climbing Everest started with that first step - or as Dori says in Finding Nemo - "just keep swimming..."

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