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The Fight-or-Flight Trigger

The primal mechanism of fight-or-flight is the result of sensory/memory combinations that the brain has stored as a threat. I call these threat triggers. While many times they aren’t things we consciously perceive as threatening, the subconscious mind has determined them to be unsafe. Most of our threat triggers are the result of survival information created during the early stages of development or through adopted DNA.

It’s easy to make this connection in the area of personal experience. For example, if you have experienced trauma – such as near-drowning – when you connect again with any sensory experience of that trauma – see or feel water – the sensory input will combine with the memory of that event to create the chemical reaction of fight-or-flight. 

Primal fears become more obvious when we observe them as prevalent fears common to multiple humans. Primal fear is inherent or inherited fear like the fear of spiders and snakes or fear of the dark. Fear of heights and the trigger of disruptive patterns in conditions like trypophobia are also common primal fears. If you’ve never had a personal experience of threat in these conditions, but still have a fear trigger, you can attribute this to DNA.

When an animal encounters a life threat, it must respond instinctively, without thought of its action. The primary survival instincts triggered by the fight-or-flight response in humans are the same. This information is stored as rules of survival. Survival is always the predominant function of the brain. Its programs are completely unconscious reactions according to training, acting as day by day, moment by moment survival mechanisms fiercely working to keep us safe.

We trigger survival mechanisms any time the brain perceives a threat to our safety. So, when we look at what is causing the triggers in our lives, we need to look to the survival mechanism itself.  We must also consider complications that drive the mechanism.

The biggest issue we face today is the function of primal mechanisms in the human brain. All primates exist under two base rules for survival – safety in familiarity and strength in numbers, or the recognition of a tribe. Humans – by nature – are not pack animals. We are a species that spreads beyond our family of origin to breed outside of that family. However, in our beginning stages of life, we need a tribe to survive. Young children can’t be left alone and survive. This is true of all primates, so – like other primates – we have an inherent sense during early development that we need other humans.

Primal mechanisms enhance that need through a desire to group. Whether it is our position in the tribe or the strength of the tribe itself, any threat to either becomes a threat trigger.  What may seem subtle or just a part of life – like changes in our environment, loss of position in society, being fired from a job or the ending of a close relationship – the brain perceives as a threat to the tribe. It also deems anything outside the structure of that tribe as unfamiliar. 

The growing influence of ‘people outside our tribe,’ along with the ever-changing conditions of life, have become a nearly constant threat to either familiarity or to our tribe positioning, and the brain responds with the same fight-or-flight mechanism it would use when being chased by a tiger.

With over seven-and-a-half billion people on the planet, it is nearly impossible to live without change of some kind. We will all experience the loss of loved ones or being excluded from a group. We will have changes in employment or diet or even the way we see ourselves or our position in the tribe. We will always be invading one another’s boundaries.

In our current condition, the primal mechanisms in us will continually push to keep things the same and our confirmation bias will result in conflict. We live in an ‘us against them’ dynamic: my race against your race, my gender against your gender, my religion against your religion, my generation against your generation, my political party against your political party and so on.

When living in primal survival mechanisms, life itself becomes a trigger. So much so, we have begun to think of it as inherent and incurable.  

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