Fight, Flight and Freeze. The study of comparative psychology has long since identified three bulk-standard responses inherited from our forebears when under threat. These three responses have a lot in common including high emotional state, typically fear or rage, and physiological preparedness for a fight or to run away. From neurology we know that these responses are managed by the emotional brain, the old lizard brain that sits on top of the brain stem and keeps us alive with its quick and dirty responses. We also know during these responses, blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex changes, effectively shuts down our higher-learning areas, our ability to consider, to weigh choices, to deliberate. Indeed, it’s only when things calm down that our clients can explore choices and perspectives, judge long term consequences. Unfortunately, by this point it’s usually too late, they’ve already glassed their husband.
‘Strong emotions make us stupid’ – Joseph LeDoux.
‘Strong emotions make us stupid’, it’s a common refrain within Cognitive Hypnotherapy. And for many of our clients, strong emotions make them un-resourceful, leaving them with poor and, in most cases, habitual behaviours based upon ‘choices’ made as a child. It’s certainly my experience that a child that fights is an adult that fights. A child that freezes is an adult that freezes. And a child that flees, is an adult that flees.
I want to make the case for a fourth ‘F’ – another type of emotional hijacking. It’s a little more subtle than the others and doesn’t involved the strong behavioural change that you tend to notice with the other three. It’s also an entirely human response, one not available our distant lizard, bird or mammal cousins. The fourth ‘F’ is ‘Fantasy’.
I had a number of clients together exhibiting the same phenomenon over a short period of time, which made me curious about what was going on. And then I saw a TV drama which hit the nail square on the head. A husband was talking to his wife, telling her he’d had an affair and almost without a beat passing she returns with ‘I had a letter from Sheila, she’s having new windows put in. Do you think we should have new windows?’ The only difference was that the voice was just a little agitated and hurried, the glance was away and down. Maybe that nasty thing will go away if we don’t mention it. Now what was for dinner? This is an avoidance strategy, a type of defence to keep the pain away, a deflection, an evasion. You might also call it a type of mental ‘Fleeing’, one that only our type of hardware is capable of.
The way I found it turning up in client sessions is that clients would suddenly not answer important questions but instead start a new thread or find some other way of diverting the conversation. It’s the subconscious saying ‘oh god, not that, anything but that!’ and switching to a completely different track in the hope you’ll lose the scent. This is probably not just in response to questioning from a third party; it probably mimics their internal state every-time they should be evaluating problematic situations, behaviours and emotions. In terms of the hypnotic phenomenon, it marks out a solid ‘deletion’ of their experience, an amnesia, negative hallucination and a launching into some positive hallucination or age progression.
In most cases it’s our job to re-connect our clients to a richer map of the world, to identify the areas they previously marked out as ‘dangerous’, and safely reintegrating this information in a non-threatening way. We also need to consider their strategies too. If their reality is truly unbearable and their fantasy is allowing them to cope, we have to make a choice. Do we help them make better decisions in regards to the big choices in their lives: their partners, jobs, location? Or, say, in the case of terminal cancer, maybe improving or installing a coping strategy might be the best way to go. There’s always the tomato plants to consider! Either way, without identifying that the client has a big hole in their map, it will be difficult to help them since they’ll always be pulling in a different direction, without knowing why.