Two Basic Survival Orientations
With regard to survival, human beings have two basic orientations toward life:
#1. State of All-Is-Well
‘All-Is-Well’ is our body’s default ‘go-to’ state when there are no big deals we need to attend to. The experience that ‘All-Is-Well’ is created by the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-digest-refresh). This system turns on naturally when we feel safe and secure.
The All-Is-Well experience is ideal for everyday routines. The feeling that 'All-Is-Well' is what allows us to settle down, take a break, eat, digest, relax and sleep.
In addition to sustaining our lives, All-Is-Well creates the subjective experience needed for curiosity, reflection, creativity and exploration. If you’re hanging out, kidding around, making small talk, tinkering with a hobby or enjoying relational intimacies, most likely you’re experiencing ‘All-Is-Well.’
Subjectively speaking, the basic life maintainance processes of All-Is-Well feel good, and they are good for us. This is where our minds and bodies rest, refresh, replenish, consider new approaches and learn new things. We take in nutrients, heal damaged tissues, make new cells, and repair worn-out circuitry in our brains and otherwise. It is in these periods that we have the chance to take stock of our lives and grow the capacities we need for the future.
All-Is-Well is an experience that most of us like to have and maintain. It feels warm and connected. Metaphorically, it is the realm of home, hearth and trusting relationships. There’s a roof over your head, a pot on the stove and a soft space to lay your burdens down. Other people have your back and you have theirs.
For reasons we will get to, however, some of us rarely if ever experience the natural, easeful state of All-Is-Well. Others of us only get there with a lot of help from internally-constructed adrenalin shields or outside aids like drugs, sex and fantasy.
However we get there, though, getting there is essential. The All-Is-Well state is our true mental and physical home. It is the heart of psychosocial well-being. No matter how far we travel – or how exciting the journey – almost all of us yearn, at some point, to return to All-Is-Well. This is the existential space where our minds and bodies long to feel accepted and ‘just be.’
#2. High-Stakes Reactivity
Our human capacity for High Stakes reactivity is activated by the sympathetic nervous system. It is often called the ‘Survival Response’ or ‘Fight-Flight-Freeze.’
The High-Stakes system allows us to respond rapidly and convincingly when the stakes are high. It wakes us up, gets us moving, primes us for action and spurs us to take it. Essentially, this is the ‘get your butt in gear’ reaction that takes over when anything feels like a big deal.
The High Stakes system is involved in all kinds of stuff. This includes both threats and opportunities. The critical factor is that – from your point of view - the stakes are high.
Sometimes, the high stakes are obvious. You’re homeless, hungry, broke, sick, cold, miserable, getting beaten up, raped or robbed. At other times, the feeling of 'high stakes' is a really personal matter. It depends on what you have lived or come to know. Thus, one person's 'high stakes' might not even register on another's radar.
The Presidential election noted in the previous chapter (4-3) is a good example. If you’re apolitical, or mildly pro-Trump, who the President is right now probably doesn’t make that much difference to you. On the other hand, if you think the new President is the veritable Savior or Destroyer of the New World Order, then the 2016 presidential election probably brought about a lot of High Stakes activation for you.
Impact on Relationships
The Survival Responses have a huge affect on our relationships with each other. Take the Presidential Election above. If you’re in the group that doesn’t care much, you can probably see truth on both sides. Yeah, there’s stuff to be concerned about but why get riled up about something you can’t change…? You have other fish to fry. With regard to this issue at least, you’re pretty much in All-Is-Well.
If you’re in the group that cares a lot, however, nothing the other side says makes sense. You don’t understand them. You don’t trust them. How they possibly could think they are right, with all those facts against them…? Frankly they scare you and you secretly wonder if they aren’t a little bit crazy. How could anyone in their right mind be so foolish…? Don’t they get how High Stakes this is…?
This is the normal way that our Survival Response plays out socially with those around us. It is happening with all kinds of issues and with all kinds of people all of the time. It is playing out in families, neighborhoods, schools, organizations and entire communities -- and a lot more often than you would think.
As a practical matter, High-Stakes Reactivity tends to be contagious. All it takes is for someone to feel like their needs or interests are scared or threatened. The moment that happens they leave All-Is-Well and the situation starts to become High-Stakes.
When a situation becomes High-Stakes for one person, it often becomes High-Stakes for others on short order. High-Stakes responses are easily misunderstood and therefore tend to scare other people. The moment that happens someone else leaves All-Is-Well and goes into High-Stakes. Pretty soon, everyone is on high alert and nobody understands why so many people around them are acting so crazy.
When this kind of reactivity happens with large numbers of people (like a political campaign or a new hair style), it’s called a trend or a phenomenon. When it happens with isolated individuals (e.g., between neighbors), the predominant viewpoint typically is seen as ‘normal’ and the unusual viewpoint is frequently labeled ‘difficult’ or ‘crazy.’
In the next Chapter, we will see even more clearly how this happens and what it looks like.