by Peter Goetz, MFT
The Flight response is, like Fight, a biologically driven action. As part of the autonomic nervous system, Flight’s job is to respond to life threatening situations, ones in which fighting or a direct encounter with an adversary is impossible. These threats may be encounters with wild animals or the chaos of a battlefield or a child being abused by an adult but the threats we encounter are just as often stress induced by traffic, internal overwhelm, conflicting demands, interpersonal conflict or just too much of everything. When we can’t tolerate, sustain or stay with the complexity, noise and chaos of a situation, Flight comes online with its action potential being to take us away from (what is perceived as) harm’s way. As such, it’s inherently protective. If the operating statement of Fight is ‘stop’, ‘I’m here’ or ‘don’t come closer’ then the operating statement of Flight might be closer to ‘I’m outta here’ or ‘I’m stepping way back and I’m doing it now’ or getting smaller. Perception of an encountered threat is key. Any given stress situation may or may not have an objective validation worthy of Flight as a response. It really doesn’t matter. An individual’s nervous system determines this. When we are calm, feeling resourced and safe, Flight’s responses are lowered; they’re not needed; an individual’s internal window of tolerance is wide, or, in current parlance, there’s more internal bandwidth. Then there’s less need for defensive action. When we are less resourced, when our wits, neurologically speaking, are frayed, Flight comes online as a potential.
Flight can take many forms. Addiction can be a form of Flight as well as ambivalence with its spinning inability to choose from options and commit to any kind of action. Suicidal impulse can be a form of Flight when those impulses are shielding a part of the Self needing protection from unbearable psychic pain.
Flight is sometimes mistaken as avoidance but it’s actually a more active state than that with with its own inner logic, action systems and motivation for protection. From it’s perspective is a good way to understand Flight with its seemingly nonsensical, counter-productive responses and action tendencies causing all manner of problems of their own. From the perspective of Flight, a greater harm is being prevented. Flight can be as subtle as the everyday encounter of a couple in a cool, distanced relationship passing their evening under the same roof, in the same room, barely talking, each person checking, rechecking emails, sending out one last really essential one, pausing.....or Facebook.....or porn, orbiting out in the interactional world. Flight can be a cushioned closed system. The greater harm may be looking at each other, talking, dropping into the vulnerability of how they really feel towards each other. Flight’s short term survival strategy of making it through the evening is chosen with consequences that can be self-defeating, working against our emotional, psychological and spiritual health. Addiction can be a form of Flight, with its power of distraction from what is being experienced or a movement towards something that an individual wants to be experiencing. Flight can be day dreaming, a soft movement away from what is happening in the here and now.
Running away from danger or running towards safety are forms of FLIGHT as is the inner voice that tells us, softly or loudly ‘something’s not right here, better move away’ maybe with a shuddering or urgency in the legs, a scanning of the environment for threat and an escape route. Flight responses are seen in situations that are dicey, unknown or threatening, ones outside the range of one’s individual window of tolerance for safety. The gender distinctions between Fight and Flight are worth mentioning; while men are more apt to respond to threat with the aggressive No! of a fight response, women are more apt to to flee - taking flight - turning to others for help or attempts to defuse threat with actions aimed towards ‘tending and befriending’ an adversary. What is key here is the psychic inner world of perception vs. the physical reality surrounding us. The psychological damage of not taking flight may be more damaging than a physical threat.
Flight is most often seen as outwardly triggered but can just as easily be internal. The felt sense of shame or fear can be hot button triggers for us. Shame, the collapsing encompassing sense of being bad, deficient or worthless is something we abhor. As a feeling, it may be just that, a fleeting emotional message but when it strikes deeply, the visceral experience can be felt to a degree that diversion is called for. Fear is wired into us as a sense that threat is imminent. As mammals, we all share the warning that fear gives us: get away. Flight is exactly that: a decisive movement away from what is unacceptable in our outer world or inner.
2015, by Peter Goetz
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