You spot a spider or hear a creaking at night, and the next thing you know, you’re brandishing your shoe or running to lock your bedroom door. These fight or flight reactions are natural defense mechanisms thousands of years in the making. Used to be, we’d stay, fight with our spears, or we’d drop our nuts and berries and hightail it back our caves. But in modern times, the things we fear have become so constant rather than immediate that we don’t fight or flee — we freeze.
We’ve blown up the pressures we face into monsters that we don’t think we can take on or outrun. Instead, we sit, finding it difficult to take a risk and do something or abandon it all together. It’s not the spikes of danger our ancestors faced, but rather an always-on, low grade stress that (studies have shown) bathes us in powerful hormones designed for short bursts and when kept open they erode our sleep, our digestion, and even our memory, leading to fatigue, weight gain, and anxiety.
If anxiety is the modern human’s manifestation of the inability fight or flee, how do we unfreeze? Self-help books are full of well-intentioned suggestions about taking a risk and leaning into vulnerability, and that is true — the risk is scary and risk exposes our greatest insecurities. They say there’s no way out but through, so avoidance isn’t going to help us unmoor ourselves from stasis and make a decision. Social media is not helping, giving us a constantly updating window through which we can see only the sunny side of other people’s alleged risk-taking.
And our bodies tell us when we’re stuck. Like a scene from The Matrix, our minds conjure up real aches, pains, and illnesses that are so convincing that they can cause temporary paralysis and panic attacks. And while it may start with a thought, the state of being frozen can cause ulcers, weakened immune systems, even heart problems. When we’re in a state of dis-ease, it can become an actual disease.
But the body also rewards us when we fight back, no matter how small. And in fact, marginal gains are the surest path to change. David Brailsford, coach of the British cycling team, employed small changes over five years from pillows they slept on to how they washed their hands, eventually building a ten-time Olympic Gold winning team. Weightlifters often build up to PRs (personal records) through small gains of 1%, and a core belief of building habits is that you should change one thing at a time, something so small you can do it.
Rather than not doing a bigger thing, brave doing a smaller one. Read for one minute a day or meditate for five and build by increments of 1%. If a unit of one seems small, consider that the difference between normal body temperature and a fever is 1˚C.
Modern fears require modern bravery. Freezing ourselves into unease happens over time, which is why small changes beget bigger shifts. By breaking up heavyweight pressures into featherweight bits, we start building the confidence needed to take on threats we’ve created in our own minds.
This article was part of The Next Page, Chapter’s bi-monthly newsletter that reveals some of the more surprising things that make us human, and gives you a glimpse of life at Chapter.