Saturday, June 14, 2014

Flight, Fight or Freeze / The Stress Response

Chronic Stress
This cartoon of a fish in a blender sums up what modern life is like. The fish is trapped in an open-ended fear of being chopped into a fish smoothie, and activation of the blender is beyond its control.

For most of human history, threat was a product within the local setting. Quick feet and quick thinking were automatic - you escaped or died. Danger from remote sources (violent storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, flood and fire) was assigned to nature spirits, and later to powerful humanlike gods, whose behavior could be influenced by sacrifice and through gifts. The human tactic of preemptive sacrifice, with humans and  animals as victims, is familiar to children - when we disobey our parents we pre-punish ourselves by going to our room or giving up a privilege, in a 'cunning' effort to plea down the consequences of our offense.

Eventually individuals and groups assigned the task of negotiation with the gods to an intermediary or to a priestly class, thereby reducing psychological stress, but not real danger. The establishment of a social hierarchy created new stresses, which modern humans have inherited and increased beyond what is tolerable.

The human body and brain evolved to cope with brief and terrifying stress in the natural environment; after such an event took place (a narrow escape from a flash flood or a confrontation with a large carnivore, let's say) the body needed time to relax and recuperate from the surge of hormones that activate the ancient Fight or Flight response, which is the fundamental response to stress in the animal brain. As modern humans we are thoroughly familiar with this sudden and automatic chemical alteration in our brains and bodies. The loss of control while driving on ice or the sudden intersection with a deer crossing a country road, is enough to send our respiration and heart rate soaring and to distort time and memory. If our stress system is healthy, once the danger has been resolved, our body will return to baseline functions and we are left with a 'focus' lesson in mind. Pay attention, slow down, watch for obstacles.

Humans are not equipped to cope with high levels of chronic stress. The structure and demands of contemporary society fail to deliver what we need to be healthy animals, but instead promote chronic stress that slowly alters and eventually will destroy the mind and body. Many of these stressors are ongoing and inescapable, and the body and brain therefore cannot relax and recuperate.

The photograph of a fish that responds to the source of stress by exiting to a better environment, models the Asperger flight response, which in nature is a vital and much more common option that confrontation. One might call it Nature's intelligent conservative force. But, aggressive male-dominated societies label self-preservation as abnormal, defective, effeminate and cowardly. Wow! How crazy is that?

Flight or retreat is the typical Asperger response to social stress. In modern societies, one is unlikely to be attacked by wild animals, but more than enough danger is provided by the social environment. The person(s) one encounters may be hostile and aggressive due to chronic stress, arrested intellectual and emotional development, or by indoctrination into a cult of bullying and violence. One may be trapped with people whose self-worth depends on demeaning others or who put 'lesser' beings in stressful social situations. Stress is chronic; unnatural levels of conflict, both within the local setting and from global sources, keep individuals in dangerous states of chemical imbalance. Governments and corporations exploit the stress response, because humans cannot think rationally (or think at all) when "stressed-out."       

The male-dominated American culture promotes the fight response: War, war, war! Everything is a war. The War on Poverty, The War on Obesity; Storage Wars, Cupcake Wars! The normalization of conflict as the default mode of human interaction has poisoned civic and political life. The cult of extreme American 'maleness' involves the U.S. in acts of aggression around the world. Up and down the social pyramid, from poor to rich, being a bully is lauded and rewarded.  

In American culture, the instinctive fight response has been perverted from a 'no-other-option' defense to a demand on males to adopt psychopathic behavior; society values  conflict and violence, not cooperation or fair play. Equality has become an obscene joke. Boys are raised in the belief that aggression toward other humans, especially females, is necessary to be considered a man. This pushes vulnerable boys to the emotional breaking point and dooms many males to arrested intellectual and emotional development, with little hope of being adequate fathers. This extreme definition of being male is NOT the traditional and natural view of male strength, which constrains the use of force to the protection of the family and community.  
Instead of government and the people cooperating to correct damaged  environments, the severe maladjustments that have become pervasive in millions of  Americans are 'treated' with illegal and prescribed drugs, alcohol, domestic violence, financially reckless behavior, bullying and other destructive behavior. Television, films, videos, and popular music pummel kids with one message: Violence, whether physical or emotional, is the shortcut to what you want, and it's legitimate. The profitable lie that objects can substitute for human fulfillment is relentlessly promoted via advertising and entertainment. And yet, the inability of millions of Americans to finish minimal education requirements or to function well-enough to hold a job, remains a culture-wide mystery! 

Some environments have been devoid of what the human animal needs for generations; no one alive remembers that life can be secure, productive and fulfilling. Children born into high stress environments cannot know that safe streets and intact families exist, except as distorted media fantasies. Chronic stress has taken over so thoroughly, that we no longer produce competent  and rational citizens and leaders. 

Nature's third response to stress is
the Freeze, which is instinctual in young animals, from deer fawns to lion cubs, whenever the mother must leave them unguarded. The Freeze can be temporary; rabbits will remain motionless, buying time to acquire information about the threat - which direction to run and when? The Freeze in human interaction often is expressed as subservient behavior, learned helplessness, depression, emotional paralysis and chronic fear. These states of mind can mask tremendous rage or end in self harm.
Societies have elaborate systems of behavior that exploit Fight, Flight and Freeze. These responses play out differently in people diagnosed as Asperger. Typical social humans misinterpret an innate flight response as defiance or disobedience, when in the natural world, running away from danger is by far the most successful life-saving action.