How Western Culture “Breaks” The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response (Making Us Mentally Sick)

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**The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the communication of ideas are not  intended to covey sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

The words “force fit” come to mind when I think about western culture. It is a model of living that requires forced conformity in order to participate and survive, even if conforming isn’t appealing to you individually, and regardless of whether it is potentially detrimental to your physical and mental health. In western culture, unless from the outset you are planning to live on the street, then the underlying objective of your existence will be conformity to what others with power have deemed essential for all.

Conformity to what, you ask? To the industrialized capitalistic world, of course! Conformity to capitalism.

Perhaps you can recall from an early age, the growing sense of pressure and expectation “to make something of yourself”, not because you realized separate from outside influence that you wanted this, but because it was presumed that you would. As soon as the school system is entered, the pressure is progressively on to “measure up”, “get with the program”, and decide what your economic purpose will be by the time you enter adulthood.

Questions like “what are you going to be when you grow up?” don’t take long to enter into the pattern of interaction between parent and child. Being human in western culture is not enough on its own. You must become “a capitalistic human” and embrace the systems of producing and consuming as deemed proper by others with power who came and went long before you. It isn’t worded like this when you are very young, but soon enough you sense that conformity to capitalism will be the reality of your life.

Since this capitalistic paradigm is typically embraced by all who surround a developing child, the pressure to ensure the child “fits in” to capitalism is felt by parents as well, meaning that much of how children are parented involves making sure the child “fits in” to the system. This style of parenting, of course, inevitably includes demands and ongoing pressure to keep up and obey system rules like everyone else… be on time, get good grades, get along with authorities, etc.

In my view as a therapist and person who has suffered with mental health issues, existing in this paradigm (pattern of living) can have long-term detrimental effects on the human nervous system and induce mental illness of varying types and severities. The reason this pattern of living can have long-term deleterious health effects is because it has little interest in healthy emotional development (nervous system development). Capitalistic societies are primarily interested in economy and making its members prepared to participate in the economy. Issues of health (particularly mental health) pale in comparison to the emphasis and priority placed on economy in western culture.

The ongoing pressure to conform or “fit in” to capitalism works to activate the fight, flight, freeze response many times over when it isn’t needed (i.e., when there isn’t any immediate threat). The fight, flight, freeze response is the high anxiety/full adrenaline body mode that works well to keep a person safe and alive when there is real threat. However, when this body mode gets “turned on” over and over when there is no immediate threat to life, then it sometimes stops working properly. **The fight, flight, freeze response not working properly means that it doesn’t activate only when necessary, rather it goes on and off somewhat randomly and keeps a person confused about when he is in danger and when he isn’t.**

Raising a child in capitalism involves ensuring the child behaves in ways that emulate obedience to authority. When obedience is lacking, parenting approaches might involve passing on notions of fear to children that their survival is at stake if they don’t conform. If the parenting doesn’t take “lecture form”, then it might include elevating consequences or straight up hostility without the buffering of emotional support, which also activates the fight, flight, freeze response in children. In other words, the fight, flight, freeze response gets activated when it isn’t needed, again and again, all for the purpose of institutionalizing (brainwashing) a child into a capitalistic way of thinking and living.

No doubt there are many different flavors of parenting – some more harsh, some less harsh – but if the end goal is compliance and obedience to a particular way of living, then chances are good it will involve unnecessary activation of fight, flight, freeze to some degree. After all, the parental concern in many instances of day-to-day living (whether conscious or unconscious) is that the child’s preparedness for capitalism is on the line. Some children can endure this style of parenting without developing any major fight, flight, freeze confusion, although many other children aren’t so lucky.

For children who are naturally more emotionally sensitive, the risk of fight, flight, freeze response confusion evolving into full-blown mental illness can be very high. In particular, anxiety disorders and personality disorders (such as Borderline Personality Disorder) are common to fight, flight, freeze confusion, because the main problem in these conditions is misinterpretation of threat… feeling and acting as though you are threatened when, in fact, you are not in any immediate danger.

After the fight, flight, freeze response gets “broken”, it can take years to discover the brokenness and try to make corrections. Sometimes, the brokenness means living with a lifetime of mental illness and all the related consequences (social, physical, financial, relational, etc.). I have spent years of my life trying to come to terms with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and the reality that I must find a way to correct my broken fight, flight, freeze response. A big part of reducing fight, flight, freeze confusion and correcting dysfunctional patterns (such as happen in BPD) is to become keenly aware of the environment that contributed to the brokenness.







photo credit: jlaytarts2090 No More Breaks via photopin (license)


Thank you for reading! Please share to help us raise mental health awareness.