Here is my understanding of how are brains are designed. We have three “instinctive” survival networks: Freeze, Flight and Fight. We have one growth network I call Thrive. Each has its own distinct brain pathways that lead to action.
Freeze: The oldest survival network. Reptilian in origin, it’s most beneficial when flight or fight are not possible. This network is used by reptiles a lot and some by insects and mammals. Opossums are masters – look up “death feigning” on Google and you’ll see one looking about as dead as any living thing can. We humans sometimes faint when overwhelmed with pain or fear. That too is a freeze response.
In the book I’m writing I postulate that the Freeze network shows up in subtle ways in non-life threatening situations. It’s evident in reactions to social threats that produce shame. Think of how people in deeply shaming circumstances sometimes feel like they cannot move a muscle. They’d like to withdraw but simply cannot. But lower intensity Freeze responses also show up as habitual passivity, passive aggression, and depression.
Flight: This is the best researched of the three survival networks. Threatening sights, sounds, etc. quickly reach the amygdala. That starts up a very rapid (1/20 of a second) physical reaction. The famous HPA axis is involved: The hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland which signals the adrenal gland to emit adrenalin and cortisol – adrenalin for immediate muscle energy and cortisol for longer term attention and activation.
The many DSM5 diagnoses for anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, PTSD…) indicates how the Flight network can become habitual and problematic. It’s definitely not good when your amygdala becomes overly sensitive and shouts out danger when there is no danger around. False alarms feel just as dangerous as real alarms. Too many of us live in perpetually low level fear punctuated by occasional feelings of real terror.
Fight: If opossums represent Freeze and rabbits Flight then the cornered rat suggests Fight. The idea is that Fight is usually a poor solution to threat because it involves moving toward the threat instead of away from it. The rat almost always tries first to flee. Only when that fails will it attack. Anger is a costly emotion that leads to even costlier acts of aggression.
Some humans make Fight their first option. That often gets them into lots of trouble. Their ‘short fuses,” resentments and rage episodes drive people away. High blood pressure accompanying chronic anger can even precipitate fatal heart attacks and strokes.
Thrive: Stephen Porges, in his book The Polyvagal Theory, describes how humans have developed a pathway that begins in a quick-signaling (myelinated) part of the vagal nerve in the brainstem. This pathway runs from the brainstem to the gut, face and heart. When active it slows the heart down enough that we can communicate and cooperate with each other. But this only happens when people feel physically and emotionally safe. A sense of safety allows us to explore the world, take safe risks, trust others, and find people to love.
Questions for Readers:
1) How familiar are you with each of these brain networks?
2) Would you say that any one of them dominates your life?
3) Can you think of a recent situation in which you felt safe enough to thrive?