It is common knowledge that we have three basic physiologic responses to stress. When we are faced with a stressful situation, our cerebrums with their executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes, problem-solving, peacemaking strategies, team building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. So we default to one of three stress responses: fight, flight, or freeze. I’ve come to discover that conflict is a huge stressor and often activates the stress response.
The first physiologic response to stress is to fight. If we can’t fight and win, we then we choose flight. If none of those would work in our favor for a given situation, we freeze.
When it comes to conflict here is how it works.
People can fight in a conflict by:
-Assaulting the opponent – they use force to bully, intimidate, verbally attack, and physically attack the opponent. They may try to damage a person’s reputation or destroy them financially or professionally so that they can win.
-Sue the opponent (take them to court) – Litigation is something people who resort to the fight response will often engage in so that they can beat and humiliate their opponents in a court of law and force them to do what they want. In a corrupt system, these people have no problem falsifying statements and bribing judges to get their wish.
-Kill the opponent – This is the extreme end of the fight response. In conflict, some people seek to murder their opponents in order to win. They will stop at nothing to win.
People can flee a conflict by:
-Denying that it exists.They just simply ignore it. We see this response as often the first response that we see in the grieving process when the person is going through a huge conflict of a huge loss or terminal diagnosis. People going through grief go through the five stages of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. These five stages mirror closely, the fight, flight, or freeze response.
-Run away – They may leave, divorce, quit a job, end a relationship, find a new group or church. They may even move to a new city or country.
–Kill themselves – Many people going through stress commit suicide. Suicide may be seen as a flight response when the person cannot deny or run away or physically remove themselves from the stressor. By killing themselves, they remove themselves from the reach of the stressor.
When people freeze in conflict, they don’t actively deny it or physically remove themselves from the situation but instead, they disengage, shut up and appease. They simply go along.
Controlling Your Stress Response
Even though the natural physiologic response to stress is to fight, flight, or freeze, we can control our responses through education and skill training so that we can consistently choose an adaptive way to respond that will help us achieve our goals. The fight, flight, or freeze responses in and of themselves aren’t wrong. There is a time and a place for each one of them. However, by training the parts of our brains that are responsible for executive function, we can override the urge to respond instinctively in a manner that won’t foster our goals with a more cooperative approach that will lead us to where we want to go with the relationship. There are times that you will choose not to fight even when you know that you can crush the other guy in a minute. There are also times that you would choose to stay when you know you can successfully escape the situation without being caught.
The Peacemaker, Ken Sande