Flight, Fight... Posture & Submit?

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

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Hi Justin, Love your podcast. I’m reading "On Killing," by Lt. Dave Grossman, and he contends there are 4 responses to stress (the fear elicited in combat) (p.7-“The Soldiers Options”).  They are: Fight, Flight, Posture (strut/flex/yell/demonstrate supremacy in some way that is scary but essentially harmless.  Like firing a gun into the sky, eye contact) and Submit (surrender)

Interesting question. Here's my two cents and a caveat: I have not worked with soldiers and haven't even come close to experiencing anything they may have outside of working with youths in gangs. That being said...


When we say "danger," we're talking about our autonomic nervous system's shifting into sympathetic arousal based on a neuroception of danger from the internal or external environment. With life threat, same thing, but we're shifting further down the ladder into a parasympathetic shut down in response to a neuroception of our lives being in danger, not just our safety.


Lt. Dave Grossman would assumedly be referring to sympathetic arousal when he mentions "flight" and "fight," just like the polyvagal theory. But "posture" and "submit" are potentially different.


POSTURE

"Posture" is the fight response. The key here is that the fight response doesn't mean we are actually fighting. But we're in enough sympathetic arousal and the flight response is inadequate, so we drop down further the ladder into fight. The fight response could also be aggressive words, telling someone off or just physically showing a display of intimidation.


Someone in a safe and social state doesn't act this way. Someone in a flight response doesn't act this way. The posturing is inherently aggressive from someone who is already existing in a sympathetic state and is showing fight behavior. Drive down the street of any inner city neighborhood and you'll see this everywhere.


With clients that are coming out of their shut down response, they next go into sympathetic arousal. First fight then flight. When they go into the fight behaviors, it's oftentimes shown as aggression, wanting to tell someone off, wanting to put their parents into their place and use the force of words. They'll often fantasize about using violence too - images of hitting someone they don't like for whatever reason.


But once they share these images and maybe even role play telling off their parent... the fight energy sort of dissipates (oftentimes through laughter). At least, it does in the safe environment of therapy. And once it does, the client moves into a flight response and their mind now wanders into what it might be like to escape from the situation altogether. What it will be like to move out of the home where their parent is abusive. And after they share an image of that (or make a plan on how to move out), they move into a safe & social connection with me, increasing their eye contact and smiles.


Back to posture -


If you've ever seen two people about to fight, they basically do what is being described in the "posture" behavior being discussed. They size each other up, square off, puff their chests out, flex their muscles, get in each other's faces, drop their voices to a deep monotone... all sympathetic arousal and all because the flight response isn't going to happen. It's using aggression to cause the other person to submit.


SUBMIT

Submitting sounds like a shut down response to me. I'm imagining someone tucking their head in and slinking off in defeat, cast away from the group and humiliated. This is different than someone who runs away to safety, burning off their sympathetic energy. Submit could also be someone that is already in a shut down state that doesn't muster the arousal necessary to fight or even posture to fight.


But again, being in a shut down state doesn't necessarily mean the person is actually frozen in place or collapses. The person I described, becoming physically smaller and submitting, is using their parasympathetic shut down response. Their bodies are slowing down, their looking downward, they might be dissociating on some level. That person is probably feeling a deep deep pit right in their gut, which is where the shut down circuitry is.


I could also see someone submitting out of respect for an authority figure. But that's not really an autonomic response, that's more of an admiration for a mentor. I suppose what would be important in this instance is if it comes from a place of fear and danger or not. Like a student, who isn't going to run from a principal, nor fight the principle, might "shut down" in front of the principle - hanging their head low, tucking their shoulders in, using little to no words and avoiding eye gaze. This is a shut down response which looks like submission. But it's not a separate autonomic nervous system pathway.


These responses of flight, fight and freeze look different based on the situation and person. Think of these as categories of responses. Like shut down refers to actual collapse, or death feigning, but also includes fainting and dissociation or submitting.


Those are my thoughts, at least. Thanks for the question!


Justin



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