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A primitive response

A crisis brings out our primitive ancestors!

The human response to a crisis that threatens us, or our world, evolved millions of years ago in our primitive ancestors. This survival response was developed to deal with threats such as predators, famine, drought or marauding tribes but it remains the same today.

Back then, our cave-dwelling ancestor’s options would have fallen into three categories:

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Let’s think first about the Fight option – if the danger (such as a predator or other tribe) could be beaten with aggression, then this would be a good option. An animal would fight if it was bigger, stronger, or better armed than the aggressor (with teeth, claw, poison etc) or if running away was not an option, for example a cornered animal may fight even though it is not a naturally aggressive creature.

We can rarely fight the types of crisis that we face nowadays without further consequences, but this reaction still shows up as

  • Agitation – an urge to “do something!”
  • Anger whether this is a general irritability or full-blown rage
  • Conflict with the people in our lives or “spoiling for a fight”
  • Anger turned back on ourselves with self-blame, guilt and criticism

For the animal who is faster than, or not as well armed as the aggressor, flight may be a better option, in other words fleeing or running away from the threat. This behaviour is usually seen in what we would describe as prey animals – deer, birds, rabbits. Their best option is running. In modern times, we may react with

  • Anxiety and being alert and highly reactive to anything that may signal further danger
  • Running away or avoiding anything or anyone that we associate with the threat (for example the workplace)
  • Withdrawing from people, being quiet or preoccupied

The third option is Freeze – in nature, this one is a last resort when neither fighting nor fleeing are an option. Nowadays it can look like

  • Apathy and a sense of powerlessness to change anything
  • Fatigue or depression
  • Lack of self-care
  • Being flat or even numbing emotions with alcohol

These are just some of the ways our primitive survival response can be seen.

Although it evolved millions of years ago, it is a highly sophisticated system that allowed humans to flourish. We are no longer (mostly) fighting tigers and the kinds of crises we do face are quite different and often complex.

However, accepting that there’s a physiological reason for our crisis response gives us a way to work with our body and mind to help recovery – provided we understand what is happening and use appropriate coping strategies to reduce symptoms.

This is why the crisis-informed psychological education found in KRTS Power to Respond® is so important that it is often enough for many people’s full recovery.

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