Overcoming the threat response of avoidance
Feeling good or not feeling bad, are the drivers of our lives – until we become conscious. And then, through that, we have other options.
The threat response of ‘avoidance’ shouts louder in our system than does the pleasure or peace response of ‘moving towards’. This is simply in the best interests of our survival. The monkey in the tree eating a banana needs to drop the banana and escape if a leopard is climbing towards it.
I think it is fair to say that in Australia most of us don’t have many real life threats like the monkey. Most of our threat perceptions are generated internally around threats to our self-concept, our sense of meaning and our beliefs.
Avoidance makes the amygdala a bit hyperactive. The more we avoid things that make us anxious, the more things we’re going to feel anxious about. It is like it piles up on us. Therefore avoid avoidance!
How do we do that? First we have to become aware of how it works.
The threats are mostly generated internally often starting with concerns like: ‘Oh I will never get it all done, I must, I should, I have to, I ought to, I am so busy, I don’t have time enough’ etc.
The drivers of these thoughts are all fear based and so generate a threat state. They are about wanting to feel safe, including not wanting to feel ‘vulnerable’ and ‘not good enough’.
We know the responses to threat; but do we observe them in relation to ourselves?
- Fight – attack, project, blame
- Flight – avoid, run/drive, distract, reject
- Faint – numb our feelings with addictions (drugs, alcohol, food, exercise, games, TV etc.)
- We deal with our perception of threat with presence and wisdom.
The latter requires that we ‘catch out’ the threat and the automated reaction, then interject and choose a new response. As we increase our body awareness, we increase our ability to catch out the threat response before it runs away with us. That gives us a ‘head start’!
It is important to note that there may be different motivations/drivers for the same behaviour. However it is the drive behind the behaviour that determines and influences the experience much more than what we are actually doing. This is one reason it is so important to become aware of our threat response inclinations, and to see them for what they are. Often there is a mix of some or all of them – let’s try to tease them out. The key thing here is that the threat at the core of our experience is just an uncomfortable, intense or painful FEELING – nothing more, nothing less. So what we are trying to get away from is a FEELING.
Fight – attack, projection, blame
When this is our response, then we focus outside of the self by instead focusing on the other: other motorists, the partner, the boss, the world, the system. Our pain and fear (or the risk of pain) transforms into anger and blame. Often when people have experienced the loss of someone dear, at least part of the pain is transformed into some kind of fight. Fighting for a cause, fighting for a cure, fighting for a right, fighting for justice etc. Part of it is also trying to avoid future pain for self and possibly for others.
Endless ‘To-do-lists’ is another strategy to keep the feelings of ‘not good enough’ or ‘not safe’ or ‘vulnerability’ at bay.
The ‘logic’ of ‘to-do-lists’ is: ‘If I attack everything that needs to be done then I will be safe, I will be ok, I will be good enough’ etc. However it is never ending. As the demands increase so do our ‘to-do-lists’ and we run a little faster, we sleep a little less, we walk a little faster.
In other words the mind places the pain outside of the self, and that place becomes the focus.
Flight – avoid, run/drive, distract, withdraw or reject
We run not realising that the threat is within, and we might do this for years. We might build an empire, get a PhD, be perfect… to prove that the voice within, that says ‘not good enough’, is wrong.
We might also reject others, reject experiences and withdraw from situations.
We distract ourselves with events, texting, phone calls, information etc. – this is why these activities are so tantalising to us. They take us away from what we don’t want to feel.
The flight response to threat is a bit like having a tail that we don’t want, and so trying to get away from it by running away.
Faint – numbing our feelings with drugs, alcohol, food, and other addictions
Tired after a long day or week; thought enough, felt enough, dealt with enough? At that point what do we want? A glass of wine, a box of chocolates, chips and pizza or sleep. We want comfort and we want to escape.
We may also have old emotional wounds of abuse, bullying, persistent feelings of inadequacy and other sorrows that we seek numbing of.
In ‘The Culture Code’, Clotaire Rapaille says that the reason Americans get fat is to numb – to check out. They eat to numb the pain of the gap between their life and what is depicted in the glossy magazines.
The key thing here is that the threat at the core of our experience is just an uncomfortable, intense or painful feeling – nothing more, nothing less. So what we are trying to get away from is a feeling.
The Third Player!
As soon as we catch ourselves out from our reactive threat response, we have the choice of engaging the Third Player. And that is ‘connection’, being ‘plugged into life’ or having a ‘healthy mind-state’. It is connecting with other humans, with the experience of gratitude, compassion, kindness, generosity, giving or inner peace. From this place of feeling connected, the fight and flight or faint reactions are NOT needed. From this place of feeling connected – presence is ours. Presence is emotional freedom.
To override the powerful ‘avoid’ tendency, it serves us to consciously work towards engaging and strengthening the connected or healthy mind-state – and this is what we do in mind–training. We connect with the life force that we call breath. We become present.
What is your driver right now as you are reading this? Is it distraction because you are procrastinating in doing something you don’t really want to do? Is it feeling you need to know this to be better at your life or job? Is it tuning out? Or is it interest in and liking to understand yourself and others more? Only you will know, and it matters hugely in terms of the quality of your experience.