Xena and fight, flight, freeze

January 25, 2015

In season 1 of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle is pestering Xena to teach her how to fight. Finally Xena, exasperated, gives the following advice:

Xena: All right, the rules of survival: Number 1: If you can run, run. Number 2: If you can’t run, surrender, then run. Number 3: If you’re outnumbered, let them fight each other while you run. Number 4…

Gabrielle: Wait…more running?

Xena: No, four is where you talk your way out of it, and I know you can do that.

In talking to my therapist about this as a joke, she pointed out that this pretty much describes the “fight, flight, freeze, think” responses all mammals have to danger.

When confronted with danger (and for those of us with PTSD, even minor stress), mammals’ sympathetic nervous system automatically gets triggered to fight, flee the situation, or freeze and wait for the danger to pass.

Fight is obvious: you get belligerent and even violent. Flee is also obvious: Run away! Freeze is less well-known but it’s my go-to response. Among mammals, we freeze as a preparation for death. Our predators may even perceive us as dead already, and they pass us by. When the danger is gone, we get up, physically shake ourselves off, and often go straight into fight until we calm down.

What Xena suggests in tip number 4 is what we all want in danger situations: Frontal lobe online! This bypasses the automatic sympathetic nervous system response and lets us react mindfully and tactically.

When I was a child and woken by strange noises in the night, I imagined burglars breaking into our house. Instead of preparing to fight, flee, or freeze, I would lie in bed mapping out what I would say to them. They would expect those other responses. I would out-think them. I imagined a conversation where I would surprise them with my command of the situation and then appeal to their common humanity to connect with them and defuse the situation.

How I managed to respond like this as a five-year-old is a mystery to me. I have also always been great in emergencies, very clear and direct. I don’t panic.

But in other situations, like Thursday night at the community forum on policing, I do freak out. During the Q & A a man got up and started shouting at the sheriff about being kept in conditions of “torture” in the county lock-up and being slammed face-first into a wall and being called “princess” by an officer and on and on. He had this massive, resonant voice and was yelling at the top of his lungs. There was dead silence in the room as everyone froze. With as many cops as were there, you’d think I’d feel safe. But I didn’t.

Eventually Mr Rant allowed the sheriff to respond, and all he did was say the holding cell met national standards and that if Mr Rant wanted to file a complaint, he would take it seriously. All four representatives of the policing community on the panel had just been talking about how important it was to de-escalate tense situations, so I suppose that’s what the sheriff was trying to do, but my body read it as “Here’s this big bully and the guy with the gun is just cowering before him. The bully can get me. I’m not safe.” I stayed for a while longer but was so freaked out I had to go home. Got up, shook myself off, and fled.

Xena appeals to me in part because she fights from a place of emotional intensity and clear-headedness. She can fight and think simultaneously. While I have had more than my share of fighting in my life, I still want to be able to stand up to bullies. But I want to do it with my frontal lobe engaged.

When I’m in touch with my 14-year-old self, the self on the cusp of fighter and self-mutilator, I call on Cyane, who is Xena’s equal and even superior because she fights from a place of total clarity. She comes to me in ritual space and looks me dead in the eye and says, “I need you clear.” She’s not against fighting—if it’s the smart thing to do. And if I’m going to fight, I need to be clear in mind, body, heart, and spirit to be effective.

My fights today are more likely to be against Wall Street corruption, torture, and Citizens United. I allow myself to get angry but I try to use that anger in a positive way, motivating myself instead of burning myself out. While I’ve taken to the streets plenty of times to fight, and have written to my representatives countless times from a place of “think,” my next goal for myself is to engage power-with and join with like-minded people in community to create a positive environment based in respect and enjoyment rather than constant defense. I never know how I’ll respond when confronted with danger, but if I come from a position of inner strength, I am more likely to follow Xena’s advice and talk my way out of it.