The popular phrase, Fight or Flight was first coined in the early 20th century by Walter Cannon on page 211 of his book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage, first published in 1915.
However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the usage of this phrase skyrocketed. Cannon, as a physiologist, studied the body’s internal responses to stressful stimuli, not the animal’s outward behavior.
Currently, a Fight or Flight response has been marketed as the norm. Despite its widespread use, aren’t typical behaviors expressed by people during a stressful and traumatic event.
In actuality, it is unusual for one to respond with a fight or flight during an assault. This popularized phrase is often harmful for sexual assault survivors, as they are more prone to be misunderstood, judged and blamed, by others and by themselves- for not being able to defend themselves in the socially appropriated manner. They begin to question the trust they place in themselves.
By adding words such as freeze, faint or even fawn, doesn’t ameliorate the situation, as it still denotes fight or flight as the primary response. Fight or flight was a term coined for Physiology, not Behavior.
So, what phrase do we use then?
The phrases, Survival Mode and Reflexes and Habits reflects on the neural mechanisms underlying the victim’s behaviors. First appearing in the 1970s, and increasingly being adopted as a psychobiological term, survival modes can not only refer to the stress induced brain function but also to brain-body responses to an impending attack.
Reflexes and habits thus far, are the best way of explaining common behaviors people engage in during an assault. Even if someone, does flee or fight, those are reflexive or habitual.
Language can condition cultural responses to a survivor’s story. So, it is important to use a behavioral language instead of a physiological one.
“When one is being attacked, they go into a survival mode, often responding with behaviors that are reflexive or habitual.”
For millennia, survival reflexes are hard-wired, not learned, as they were deemed important throughout the animal kingdom, irrespective of sex, and pre-existed long before culture had its impact on evolution.
Survival reflexes are triggered when the mind-body recognizes a situation as life-threatening, which can include predatory attacks, as well as sexual assaults.
One such reflex is freezing, depicted as an inhibition of movement, that causes the brain to pause temporarily, in order to take in all the information necessary to generate an effective response. These responses are often of short duration (1-2 seconds).
The other two reflexes are extreme survival reflexes: tonic immobility, where in the body is temporarily paralyzed and collapsed immobility, where in the paralyzed muscles are accompanied by a BP and heart rate drop, which causes the person to faint or pass out.
Finally, dissociation reflex is a deflection in awareness, in order for the body to disconnect from disturbing and painful stimuli. Dissociation can also occur alongside the extreme survival reflexes, to ensure that the predator doesn’t receive any stimuli that would initiate further attacks or assaults.
Selected for its evolutionary advantage, dissociation causes survivors to express feeling numb, dream-like state or an out-of-body experience.
Habitual behaviors such as polite, passive and/or submissive responses are more common that reflex behaviors, as these are acquired responses to aggressive and dominant people in our life, specifically attained in childhood. More common in girls and women, this passivity, polite acquiescence or submission, learned in childhood, over repeated incidences of abuse, exploitation and dominance, has helped them cope and survive.
They’ve learnt not to create a scene or bruise an ego, ineffectively pushing away the hand from the breast, or saying phrases like “I have to go home”, “Not here” or even “Please, stop” when there exists an escalation of the assault. Since such behaviors worked to an extent, they became habits.
When habit behaviors and reflexes overlap, it becomes confusing and very disturbing. People may engage in sexual acts, not because they have consented, but because they have checked-out all the other options and are now in a dissociative autopilot mode.
Reflexive responses employ the defense circuitry, which includes the periaqueductal grey area in the brainstem. Habit behaviors, evoked by stresses and trauma, implement the brain’s habit circuit, which includes the dorsal striatum. Even when someone employs the fight or flee response, they are running on the defense and habit circuitries.
The brain resorts to the defense circuitry to control behavior directly by generating survival reflexes, or indirectly by triggering habitual responses.
In an event where one is approached by a predator, thinking and rationally responding using one’s pre-frontal cortex will take up too much time and could get one killed. Hence, evolution selected reflexes and habits to cue up and execute responses in fractions of a second in order to save your life.
As a result of adopting this survival mechanism, the brain compensates by impairing the prefrontal cortex, thus allowing for faster reflexive and habitual response.
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