These terms - fight, flight, freeze and ease are all indicators of the different states that the autonomic nervous system can go through as a natural part of its function. It may be hard to appreciate nowadays in our society but these aspects of us are part of our biology or our physiological makeup. They are part of me and you, being, as a good teacher of mine says, an animal and in particular, a mammal.
I know that when I was first reminded of this, I did not find that at all comfortable and I was not in an agreeable frame of mind to just go along with what I was being told.
But as I began to get to know myself better, I could see where I wanted to defend myself and got angry - fight, where I got antsy and wanted to get the hell out of there - flight, and where I got floaty, numb or shut down - freeze. None of these reactions were under my conscious control. They happened more quickly than that in an instant. I had my own particular way of reacting as my go to pattern and some were hard or impossible to access. You might relate maybe ...
These were all natural instincts happening from my biology that in evolutionary terms helped me to survive way back then before we had agriculture, had discovered that we could fuel engines with fossil fuels and that mobile phones, well you can decide if you think those are good things or not ....
Learning about Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory that lays all of this out has been a game changer for me both personally and professionally as a body based psychotherapist.
Nowadays, we can seem far from living a life of instincts coming from our biology but it's a short timeframe from now to life as a cave person in evolutionary terms.
We live in a society where feeling stressed and too busy has become the norm. Being constantly in fight or flight sympathetic drive is supported by our culture. We are not taught to pay attention to the whispers of what we need, but instead keep going and push past the exhaustion we know is underneath. Until the whispers become so loud that we crash and burnout or live with constant fatigue that is.
Having the sympathetic nervous system drive to give us energy to do what we want and need to do is a vital part of our lives however. It's like the accelerator on a car. But we can't accelerate endlessly. Our systems need to come down and 'rest and digest'. We need to experience another branch of our nervous syste, the parasympathetic nervous state that allows us to recuperate.
Likewise, if we are stuck in a parasympathetic state of collapse or find ourselves 'freezing', we may feel unmotivated, procrastinate or lifeless and we can't get going.
Ease, our longed for state of another part of our parasympathetic nervous system, the social engagement system (or ventral vagus) can also be a more difficult place to find and that may be the case for you too. That is what we are here to find in therapy. Getting to a place where you can find more ease for yourself and with others.
Imagine a life where you live with a sense of flow. Energy for doing things arises from your sympathetic state and maybe you are able to attend to your breath or create some movement in a way that energises you to support that. When you need to, you slow down into parasympathetic and rest, allowing food to digest and to sleep well. You might look to the skills and practices you have to find a way to bring that sense of ease into the moment for yourself and maybe with others.
You live in a balance for you about how you connect with others and feel a sense of belonging and safety with loved ones. In a sexual connection you are aware of the places where you want to extend your pleasure in parasympathetic relaxation or ramp it up in sympathetic heightened arousal.
In the world, you are tuned into your social engagement system and know how to detect what in others makes you feel uncomfortable around them and are able to make choices about that to keep yourself safe. You feel safe in yourself and can articulate your needs. You can create, enjoy and rest in stable connections with others.
Sometimes difficult things happen and you know that you can recover and come down from that feeling of threat once it has passed without holding onto that charge you experience for longer than you need to. You know where to go for support to help you with that if you need to.
This is the possibility when we get to work with our nervous system states in therapy. We get to develop awareness and flexibility in our systems so that we can be more in the driving seat of life. We get to live more of life in the here and now that we want and less of the one we feel we have to or that feels constrained by the hurt of the past. We get to be more free ...