I started martial arts when I was only 7 years old. I had grown up watching Jackie Chan films with my father and wanted to be able to move and fight like my hero on TV. This was back when Tiger Schulmann’s used to be on TV with commercials of little kids in black belts and even then I kinda figured…if a 9 year old can ‘black belt’ your school…maybe you’re not giving the most in-depth experience.
Aside from a few on and off years due to school, I’ve continued to maintain consistent practice up till now. I’ve since changed schools from my younger days but I’m still practicing and still as into it.
Which is good, because I always believe when it comes to preparedness and self-defense, it is always a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ you’ll need it. When it comes to fight or flight, I will always choose fight. (I have two bad knees and terrible cardio so if I end up running I’ll be dead from exhaustion before threat anyways.)
I have to think though, that in terms of all conflict resolution in general, my path is not always so clear cut, and I may even tend to go the other direction, choosing to flee more than fight. Which made me think which, if any, is even more beneficial to begin with.
So I’m sure we’re all pretty familiar with the ‘fight or flight’ response, AKA acute stress response. This was a phrase first coined by Walter Bradford Cannon, an American physiologist. He discovered, and described, it as a physical reaction which later on we understood to affect how we mentally assess and react to stresses and threats. The brain recognizes some threat to our well-being or survival and reacts in a number of ways. Heart rate increases, our pupils dilate, the body redirects much of the blood flow from non-essential muscles to more essential ones, such as our limbs. The body produces an excess of hormones like adrenaline, testosterone, and even estrogen. All of this physical response is to better prepare ourselves to enact whatever our mental response is, which is of course either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. When our mind decides it is best to ‘fight’ our bodies are already prepared by increasing heart rate and therefore blood flow, slowing our digestion, dilating our pupils, and tensing our muscles. If our decision is to ‘flight’ or to flee, our ‘tunnel vision’ can hone in on an escape route and the increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar means we can convert more fats into energy and access a reserve much quicker for greater endurance.
Since then they’ve added a third response as well, which is to ‘freeze’. Thus it is now the ‘fight, flight, or freeze response’. You will see this plenty of times with certain smaller, weaker animals, like the possum and the rabbit. This can best be described as, when faced with an extreme threat (such as a predator or attacker), the system goes into a state of shock, tensing up so completely and reducing all functions to the bare minimum necessary in order to ‘trick’ an attacker that the target is already dead or perhaps, by not moving and drawing attention, has disappeared.
In relationships, I feel we often fall back on one of these three responses whenever times get tough or there are arguments or anything potentially tense or serious.
To ‘fight’ doesn’t always have to mean yelling and screaming or throwing perfectly good silverware across the kitchen. It can mean that some of us may react to stress with conflict, but it mostly means that we treat arguments as threats to our ‘rightness’. We can’t resolve or move beyond the argument because we feel some need to hold onto our convictions or seek validation of our points. It keeps us stuck in this perpetual feeling of anger because we don’t know how to ‘let it go’. I want to be understood, I want to be validated, I want to be ‘right’, and so at the expense of the greater relationship, I will not back down and continue to confront the issue.
I think ‘flight’ is perhaps one of the most common and prevalent responses, especially in present times. To be honest, when faced with a difficult or tense situation, it is just so much easier to simply run away. And I don’t necessarily mean physically. Though god only knows how many times I’ve thought about just not showing up for a date or ditching halfway through. If you’ve ever been seriously hurt in the past, then you also know how temptingly easy it is to fall into a defensive pattern of withdrawing (fleeing) emotionally from a situation or person to protect yourself from being hurt or feeling hurt. It’s when we turn on the TV to drown out the empty space between us or run off to a friend’s or to a bar to create space away from someone. Of course the problem is, no matter how far you run physically or emotionally, the issue is still there when you return. That is, if you return.
Freezing can mean one of two things. The first is like that deer in headlights look you sometimes see people have. Some big unexpected stressor comes up and, not being accustomed or perhaps strengthened to deal with such situations, you tense up and just…lie there, still, emotionless, not knowing what to do. Freezing can mean lacking the knowledge, the confidence, or the belief that we can be better, do better, or have better. The other possibility is that we might know there are potentially better options for us out there, but we feel at an impasse, lacking the motivation or the ability to move forward. Not freezing but literally frozen in place. You might feel that the devil you know is still better than the devil you don’t know, so you stay where you are, in something unhappy but at least a level of unhappiness that you are accustomed to.
Now I don’t doubt that in terms of actual survival, these responses have probably saved our species more times than we can ever possibly count. It is the result of thousands of years of evolution and conditioning in response to very real and present dangers. But because it is such a natural and biological response, we tend to do the same thing when faced with physically dangerous situations as we do emotionally dangerous situations. But when it comes to matters of the heart and love and things as complicated as relationships, we cannot simply resort to our baser instincts.
Relationships are opportunities for us to grow as people. When it thrives, we grow and our worlds grow because we learn to live as one with another person, adding their experiences and perspectives to our own and enriching our worldview in the process. Even when relationships die, they should not be seen as failures. They can still yield some valuable lessons about what we are looking for, what we have to offer, and what we are willing and unwilling to work for or change. Unfortunately, not all relationships are perfect, and difficult times are bound to spring up every now and then. Being able to effectively deal with them is important because we should try to save the things that are important to us yet still have the awareness and self-worth to know what is not.
Sometimes it is important to know when and how to fight. Some relationships are worth fighting for, just maybe not fighting in. We need to develop a strong fighting spirit to know how to protect something when it comes our way. Much the same way that we should know when it is time to throw in the towel and save yourself time, stress, and most importantly, dignity. No one wants to be the last person off a sinking ship. It’s important to be able to recognize what is happening at the first sign of water. I think even freezing can, at appropriate times, work for a relationship. Someone needs to be steadfast and settle the wild waters. Do you have the resolve and the patience to see enough of a situation before making a decision?
I think in the past I have been too hasty in deciding how to deal with situations. As soon as something doesn’t match my expectations or fit into my plans, I immediately try to either steamroll over the edges and smooth them out into my mold or I cut all ties and move on. People come and go, relationships grow and thrive and sometimes die. We may have people in our lives for days, or months, or we would hope for many many years. But there is no design or way of predicting if someone will be with us forever or only for a time. No matter what though, every person and every relationship has something to offer, something to value and learn. We cannot throw things away at the first sign of conflict and we can’t do ourselves and our hearts a disservice by falling into the same patterns over and over. There is no fight or flee or freeze. There is just continued opportunities to learn to live and to love and to face that which tries to harm either.
Man: 129 Loneliness: 28