The Three Basic ResponsesWhen the stakes seem high, human beings are wired to respond in one of three ways: fight, flight or freeze. This keeps things simple in trying times. It also capitalizes on the action tendencies that are created during High Stakes activation. For example:
The 'fight' response goes after threats and opportunities. It takes them on or brings them down. The hope here is to act in ways that make the world safe and get us what we want. In essence, we are using our High Stakes activation to overpower opposition.
The 'flight' response avoids threats and opportunities. It gets away (runs, hides) as fast as possible. The hope here is that someone else will fix things or the problem will take care of itself. In essence, we are using our High Stakes activation to escape opposition.
The 'freeze' response hides in plain sight. It shows no apparent reaction (it de facto disappears), giving others nothing to notice or chase. Sometimes, the hope is to not be noticed. Other times, the hope is to not notice what is going on inside or around us. It’s all too overwhelming, and we simply don’t know how to handle it. In essence, we are using High Stakes activation to ignore or go undetected by the opposition.
The Incredible Diversity of High-Stakes responses
We are adaptive beings. The purpose of High-Stakes is to maximize that. It wants us to live as long as possible and as well as possible, given our options. As a result, even though evolution started us off with mostly physical responses, human beings actually fight, flight and freeze in countless ways.
Here are just a few examples:
Maybe we’re not so good at fighting physically, but we’re really smart. So we fight intellectually- we argue and argue until we get the last word in. Or we fight emotionally or verbally by getting angry, resentful or yelling. Socially, we might envy others, compete with others, or try to 'win' friends. Or maybe we fight spiritually by becoming spiritual 'high achievers' or prayer warriors.
Maybe literally running away is not an option because we’re not very fast on our feet. No worries, we can run emotionally or with our imagination. We can mentally change the subject or the picture in our mind. We can also run socially, for example, by backing down or apologizing profusely. Or maybe we run from awareness or feelings, using work, politics, tv, sex, video games, the internet, drugs or self-injury as distractions.
Even with freeze, there are a variety of options. We might actually be driving a car, but so lost in thought that we are not even aware of the road. In a school or at a party, we might keep talking, but go numb inside. We might stay put physically but escape into fantasy or an entirely different reality in our minds.
Understanding the above dynamics help to make sense of a broad variety of mental phenomena.
For me, anxiety is what gears me up to try to address something I think is going to go bad. Metaphorically, I feel like prey trying to escape a predator. The High Stakes system helps me do this.
The difference for me with 'depression' is that I've usually given up hope. The situation just seems too big and overwhelming. I still feel lousy because the High Stakes response is still there telling me that All Is NOT Well. But, in effect, a part of me has decided to stop wasting my energy trying to fix it.
Dissociation, for me, is a close cousin to anxiety and depression. It happens for me when reality is painful and entrenched, and I want to avoid noticing how it makes me feel. I do this by getting lost in thought or slipping into fantasy.
4. Altered Perceptions
At one point, I deliberately pushed myself into a spiritual reality, because I felt so overwhelmed and discouraged about my ability to meet the demands of my life on my ordinary human resources. In that reality, I heard things, felt things, and saw things that others around me did not.
5. Bipolar, Addiction, Aggression
The second function of High-Stakes responding is less well-known. This is where I go after something I want. Metaphorically, I become the hunter hot in pursuit of a tasty meal. The High-Stakes system helps me mobilize the resources I need to do this. The intense activation of the High-Stakes system - including its single minded focus and the 'thrill of the chase' - for me, explains a lot of what gets diagnosed as 'bipolar.'
A close cousin is so-called ‘addiction.’ Anticipation of pleasure and relief from pain are both attractive goals. Since most addictions supply this, they tend to activate High-Stakes reactivity in a lot of us. Once that happens, we are off ! Our brain state in survival reactivity insures that we will be able to recall the consequences of our last binge barely if at all. So, despite our best intentions in a calmer state of mind, once again, we find ourselves pursuing and tracking down something we are convinced will make us feel better.
The High-Stakes 'hunter' energy can easily manifest as aggression as well. Winning a fight or competition - or even a better job - are attractive goals that often activate High-Stake reactivity. As with any High-Stakes situation, a brain-deprived 'survival mentality' is quick to follow. This practically ensures that such aims frequently will be pursued with little awareness or concern for our impact on others.
Diversity is Good for our SpeciesDespite the obvious pitfalls, High-Stakes reactivity is a tremendous asset to our species. It has made our survival possible for thousands and thousands of years.
Just as important is the fact that:
- We see different things as threats and opportunities; and
- We react to threats in so many different ways
Both factors are crucial to human survival. When an entire community is facing a threat, this promotes resilience and survival overall.
- The fact that we are tuned into different things ensures that, as a species, there will always be someone to alert us to a potential harm or benefit.
- The fact that we react differently - even in similar circumstances - is also a good thing. It ensures that humans will respond to challenging situations in numerous rich and creative ways.
If we all responded the same way to danger or opportunity, a single threat (predator, disease, disaster) could wipe us out. We need the extremes that people tend to under stress to safeguard group survival.
On the other hand, when the stakes are seemingly individual, the virtue of diversity can get obscured. Since only one person is reacting, this can look rather odd to everyone else. As we mentioned above, this has led to a lot of us getting labeled 'mentally ill' when, really, we were just experiencing High-Stakes responses.