Fight/Flight/Freeze and the Alexander Technique / by Ariel Carson

In Memory of All the Unarmed Black Men Who Have Died at the Hands of Police Officers

Purple Grapes

Once I watched a grown man in a business suit leap out of his subway seat with fear and surprise at the sight of a lone purple grape rolling down the floor of the train car headed toward his feet. I can only assume that out of the corner of his eye he saw something more threatening than a grape. Perhaps he thought it was a mouse, or perhaps he knew it was a grape, but a traumatizing experience with fruit from his past triggered a fearful reaction causing him to jump up and run away.

We all have our purple grapes: stimuli in our lives that trigger our Fight/Flight/Freeze responses, because they are associated with some past experience where, real or not, we perceived our lives as threatened. Fight/Flight/Freeze (FFF) is seen all throughout animals in nature, and even though we modern day humans don't actually need to fight, run, or play dead to save our lives nearly as often as we once did when we lived out in the open with other animals who saw us as prey, we still often feel as though that were the case.

 Here is a list of some of the symptoms that can occur when our Fight/Flight/Freeze mode kicks in:

-Tightness in the throat, jaw or chest

Michael Brown

Michael Brown

-Holding the breath, rapid breathing, shallow breathing

-Marked increase or decrease in heart rate

-Skin goes pale or flushed

-Feeling too hot, too cold or clammy

-Tightness or feeling sick in your stomach

-Vision gets blurry

-Muscles feel tight, weak, or numb

(credit: Trauma First Aide Associates)

Do any of those sound familiar in your own life? The thing is, many of us are walking around in some degree of FFF mode all the time. Residual trauma has gotten stuck in our nervous systems because our initial FFF responses never had the opportunity to properly resolve their course (see Somatic Experiencing). This means we are in some state of feeling like our life is in danger at all times. And if you don’t know when your FFF response has kicked in, you are no longer functioning at your highest cognitive level. You are living in fear and trying to save your own life, even when it is not actually in danger.  

 So on August 9, 2014 when Officer Darren Wilson raised his gun to shoot and kill the unarmed Michael Brown, it is possible he perceived the situation at hand as a threat to his life, when indeed it was not. In many situations where a police officer has killed an unarmed black man, there has been a major discrepancy between the actuality of the situations, the threat the officers perceived, and their subsequent actions. The officers were acting out of fear for their lives, when their lives were not at stake.

photo credit:  Alex Welsh

photo credit:  Alex Welsh

Now the reasons why these officers have gone into FFF mode when faced with unarmed black men on the beat is a subject matter steeped in systemic racism I am not qualified to address. I would also like to make it clear that I am in no way defending the police officers’ actions in these situations. My intention is rather to bring these cycles of reactivity and fear into our conscious awareness in order to question their necessity, and maybe with patience, time, perseverance, and gentleness, prevent further fear based murders and violence from occurring.  The time has come to recognize our own habitual cycles of fear so that we may break them. This goes for law enforcement officers and soldiers, as much as it goes for everyone else who calls the planet Earth their home.

 Alexander Technique is Mindfulness in Action. By becoming aware of our habitual mental and muscular reactions to any given stimulus, we call into question what is necessary, release what is no longer needed, and redirect ourselves into greater support, expansion, and freedom. Over time this leads to more agency over our reactions and responses to what we encounter in our daily lives. The changes in ourselves are reflected in how we perceive the world around us. We begin to see things more as they are, and less as we’ve projected on to them to be. We begin to understand our own fear reactions, and how they manifest in our mind-bodies. So that next time we encounter a situation where our throat closes up, we feel sick to our stomach, and our heart begins to race, we have the tools to stop, turn down the volume on our nervous systems, and let go of the habitual tension associated with our FFF response long enough to ask, “Am I actually in danger right now, or am I safer than I thought?” This enables us to make decisions more clearly.

Whether you are an officer encountering an unarmed black man, a business person seeing a grape rolling down the floor of the subway car, or whatever triggers your FFF response, mindfulness in action means we can have the sense enough to say maybe this time I don’t need to fight. Maybe this time I don’t need to flee.  I have the ground underneath me, my breath is open, my vision is clear, and I am calm enough to see what happens next without fear dictating my actions and getting in my way.