Walter Bradford Cannon first described the fight-or-flight response as a physiological reaction initiated by the sympathetic nervous system in response to a threatening situation. The fight-or-flight response is not something we have control over: it is an unconscious series of physiological events with the primary focus of survival.
What then, if our physical survival isn’t in danger? What happens when it’s our mental survival, our wellbeing or our happiness under threat? What if we have to make the conscious decision to stay and fight, or cut our losses and run?
I graduated two years ago this summer and had moved to a new country and into a graduate job before I’d even collected my certificate and thrown my mortar board jubilantly into the air. It has had its ups and downs — maybe more downs than ups but I convinced myself that was normal, a cyclical response to change and newness. It wasn’t until recently, after a promotion and a stint of time travelling to a different country, that the downs seemed much more frequent and dominant than the ups.
Ever the optimist, I carried on and told myself it would get better, that I wouldn’t feel useless and that I really do enjoy going home to my empty apartment after a long week of work and that communicating with my friends and family in another country via the Internet and Whatsapp really is okay. As I felt more and more lost at work, the solitude and isolation from my home country felt greater than ever and I found myself slipping into an abyss and the stimulus presented itself: my happiness and sanity were being threatened.
I’ve never particularly been a homebird, but I’ve always had a large amount of people around me — people with whom I can communicate in my own language, who I can turn to in times of need and call on when I need a friendly ear or shoulder to cry on. I’ve recently discovered, however, that Facebook isn’t a particularly comfortable shoulder.
Everything came to a head about two weeks ago. A colleague asked me how I was, and before I could say a single word, tears were streaming down my face and my chest was heavy with sobbing. I cried for three hours straight that morning, and when I returned home from the office, I cried some more. I’d gone from not even crying at The Notebook, to crying every other day for two weeks — something had to give.
I spoke to my parents, needing their advice. Needless to say, they offered me their pearls of wisdom in the form of them wanting nothing but my happiness, which is easier said than done when bound into no less than five financial contracts and living in a foreign country a two hour flight away from home. And the question was planted — do I fight or do I flee?
I wish I was privy to the answer, I wish I could say I was brave enough to flee, and I wish I felt strong enough to fight. At the moment I’m caught in the middle, unsure which road to travel, unsure which weapons to choose, which armour to will get me through the day, but every day gets a little easier. The fighting is becoming less aggressive, less brutal and the fleeing instinct less urgent… maybe my happiness isn’t under threat after all, maybe I’m just learning to find it in people and places I’d never thought to look to before.
The fight-or-flight response is an unconscious process, and maybe as soon as it becomes conscious, the stimulus ceases to be threatening, because we’re alive, and we have the ability to think, ration, and most importantly feel, and it’s those conscious moments of feeling: of pleasure, pain, fear, joy or sadness which make life what it is. And although sometimes it’s tough, and sometimes we feel like we can’t find our way out of the darkness, we carry on: because our parents say so, because our friends say so, because hell, even strangers say so. Sometimes we just need a little help to see the beauty; to stand our ground; to see that there is every reason to fight.