Stress manifests in each of our lives in unique ways but the underlying process of how we get triggered and react to stress is fairly consistent for all of us. The cycle of stress reactivity starts with a triggering event; something doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. Immediately following the event, the brain perceives a threat and the body contracts into a general feeling of “yuck”. Then the language part of the brain kicks in and starts narrating the event with negative thoughts, opinions, and judgments. Finally we react in an unconscious, habitual way that falls under the categories of fight, flight, freeze, fix or fake.
The Fight, Flight or Freeze Reaction
“Fight, flight or freeze” is common language in our stressed out culture. Most of my clients come to coaching with at least a conceptual understanding of these behaviors, and can quite easily identify them in other people. The fight reaction is simple to spot: someone screaming into a cell phone, slamming doors, flipping the bird or just snarling the lip to put some “stank” on a facial expression. The flight reaction is equally obvious: an adolescent playing video games during finals week, a co-workers preoccupation with next years vacation, or a spouse chronically shopping online for things they don’t need and eating food they’re not hungry for. And then there is the freeze reaction that can be observed in someone: delaying plans, postponing goals and hesitating to make a decision after weeks of making pro’s and con’s lists. We’ve all met these people.
Anyone who begins a mindfulness practice can also begin to see these same patterns play out in their own lives. When thoughts of blame, criticism or anger towards either themselves or the other arise, it’s safe to say they’re leaning toward a fight reaction. When they notice the tendency to withdrawal, repress, zone out or escape into a favorite vice, it can confidently be named the flight reaction. If someone’s ever felt “paralysis by analysis”, or are prone to rumination, procrastination, and make never-ending excuses for inaction, they intimately understand the freeze reaction.
Because these reactions are inherently unpleasant, heavily charged with “negative energy” and come at a perceptibly high cost, most of my clients find it easier to identify and work with them than the lesser known fix or fake reactions.
For the most part “high performers” have already refined their behavior around polite company and know that an obvious display of fighting or fleeing just isn’t an option. Lashing out or shutting down makes it difficult to upholding the desired social image as a solid business leader, parent, teammate, teacher, community member or all around shiny, good person. For these people, the innate stress reactions begins to take on more nuanced and culturally acceptable forms of aggression- fixing or faking. Although these reactions to stress may be considered more “adaptive coping mechanisms” than the other reaction, they can still get us into some trouble when unchecked.
The Fake Reaction
We all like an upbeat person and there’s plenty of research to support an attitude of gratitude, finding the silver lining and thinking optimistically. But nobody is happy all the time so when “perfectly positive” becomes a automatic, chronic way of being, you might just be faking yourself out.
To avoid being vulnerable or out of fear of looking like an imposter, some go into a fake reaction of “acting as if”, putting on a happy face and telling everyone they’re doing great when they’re really hurting inside. The act can work for a while but will eventually fall apart.
You know you’re in a fake reaction when you:
- Find yourself saying, “it is what it is” but still resisting life
- Saying “yes” to more, even when you’re already at capacity
- Connect with friends only when you’re feeling “on” but turn into a hermit when you’re “off”
- Repeating affirmations you don’t believe
- Pretending to like someone when you don’t and act interested in something that you’re not
- Embellishing stories to look good
- Smiling with your face but cursing with your mind
- Feel pride in your ability to “suck it up”
Faking is intrinsically dishonest, inauthentic and feels bad but there are times where it might unfortunately be appropriate. The term for it is “emotional labor” and it’s often in the job description of employees in industries where it’s deemed necessary to display required emotions toward customers. Some of these jobs include: flight attendant, nurse, doctor, store clerk, call center worker, teacher, social worker as well as most roles in the service industry and media. Emotional labor is correlated to greater rates of fatigue and burnout.
No matter what industry you work in, when your boss asks you in passing, “how are you?” it may not be the time or place to share about your kid’s bad grades or the fight you had with your spouse that morning. But if your habitual answer is still, “good” to a dear friend or family member over coffee, you're faking.
A client of mine was going through an extremely difficult time with his wife who’d given him an ultimatum to either have kids or get divorced. This happened while he was in the middle of a job transition and while they’re house was in escrow. When I inquired about his stress levels and how he was feeling about all of this, he said, “You know, I trust that everything is going to workout just fine. I’ve got to just stay positive. I live on the beach and get to surf three times a week…I’m grateful for so many things.” At one point in my coaching career I might have erupted with pride and admiration for my clients wise perspective during such difficult times. But now, I call B.S. This was a strategy he’d used his whole life and was his clever way to avoid dealing with something that was clearly urgent and stressful. It’s a nice intention to stay positive but in this case it was a band aide on something that clearly needed stitches.
The Fix Reaction
The fix reaction is my personal “go-to reaction” when life gets difficult for me or anyone else in the vicinity. As soon as I feel the twinge of unease, the impulse is to jump into action and immediately make it better. This natural inclination to be assertive and helpful can serve me and others well. But this same strengths can also become a weaknesses when overplayed or used unconsciously to avoid feeling a difficult emotion.
One of my most consistent stress triggers is physical pain. When I’m in pain, I’ll react anxiously by staying up late on Web MD, self-diagnosing symptoms and solving my own personal medical mysteries. I’ve started to name this habitual fix reaction, “Dr. House”. If I don’t catch it, I’ll end up buying every recommended supplement and device on the Internet. I know it’s a fix reaction because by the time Amazon Prime delivers, I already feel better and return it all.
Instead of pausing and acknowledging a moment of difficulty, those caught in the grip of a fix reaction will often bypass the vulnerable emotions by bolstering the ego with actions that reinforce an identity of being capable, competent or even “spiritual”. What could possibly be wrong with this, you might ask? Instead of facing and processing the real fear beneath the stress trigger, the fixer will compensate with self improvement and “overdoing”. In some cases, the doing, even when seemingly healthy (starting another business, signing up for the next yoga boot camp, doing a juice cleanse or buying a stack of new books) will only temporarily cover up the pain.
Here are some common examples of the fix reaction:
- Setting unrealistic goals and making long lists that never actually get completed
- Reading dozens of Self Help books and skipping the exercises
- Waking up with a hangover and immediately signing up for a marathon
- Over-eating then promising you’ll exercise twice the next day to compensate
- Continuously attending workshops to fix yourself
Fixing can also be our own stress reaction triggered by another’s stress. I get more people approaching me after a presentation saying, “Oh if you could just coach my husband/ daughter/ neighbor, my life would be so much easier!” When someone we care for is struggling, it makes us tense and worried. To ease our own stress, we set out to fix the situation for the other. “You should get to bed earlier, go on match.com, switch to green tea, and start meditating every morning.” All of these are obviously beneficial when the time is right but honestly, how often have you really appreciated someone else’s unsolicited expert advice when you’re feeling stressed out?
So how do you know when focusing on something positive, or making an improvement in your life is truly beneficial versus a fix or fake reaction? Only you could know for sure. But in general, if your response to stress is a mindful choice motivated by reflection, intuition and compassion, it will likely serve you well. If you’re reaction is automatic and motivated by avoiding fear, even if it seems healthy and positive, it will probably not be helpful in the long run.
Applying mindfulness to stressful events begins by observing the process of first tightening in the body, thinking negative thoughts and then noticing the very initial impulse to fight, flee, freeze, fix or fake. Before we indulge any of these impulses, the practice requires that we pause, soften the body, and then name the stress.
You may try mentally labeling feelings of:
- “Anger” and the impulse to “fight”
- “Escaping” and the impulse to “flee”
- Being “stuck” and the impulse to “freeze”
- Needing “improvement” and the impulse to “fix”
- “Hiding” the truth and the impulse to “fake”
Bringing mindfulness to these feelings and impulses with a sense of curiosity and kindness, over and over again eventually leads to greater insight and discernment. Only after fully embracing what is really happening are you able to make an appropriate response.