Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

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Total Black: $521.48
Total Red: $227,180.54

In Financial Neighborhoods, I mentioned how the authors of Mind Over Money referenced the instinctual responses to perilous situations as fight, flight, or freeze.  I had never heard “freeze” included when referencing the fight-or-flight response.  It’s absence, now that I’ve noticed it, is a clear oversight on the part of psychologists.  The authors of Mind Over Money cite the triple-F response mechanism because that response is often triggered in times of financial difficulties or when we face financial struggles.  It seems asinine to imagine a primal response to something so contemporary as managing finances, but it happens.  Quite often.  To me as well.

When we perceive something threatening, a whole host of biochemical events take place in our bodies.  Heart race increases.  Our breathing becomes fast and shallow.  Our senses become more acute.  Digestion stops.  Adrenaline flows.  And, unfortunately, our rational mind oftentimes gets shut out of the situation.  Check out this video on YouTube.  (Sorry, I haven’t yet coughed up the $85 for posting videos on this blog.)  The Klontzes reference this clip in Mind Over Money as an example of the instinctive, and often uncontrollable, response we have to perceived threats.  Clearly the man in the video was in no real danger.  But his response was to fight.  Not flee.  If you blink you’d miss his response that’s how fast it is.  Once his rational mind returns, he realizes that he overreacted.

Sometimes, the authors argue—and I agree—we behave the same way with our finances.  Something occurs vis-a-vis our financial livelihood; we react to it as a threat to our safety and security.  And then we respond: we fight it, we flee from it, or we freeze in place.  For example, you find out your home is being foreclosed on:  some might flee from that information into some escape—food, shopping, drugs, alcohol—anything to run from that reality.  Some might fight it as threat to their existence.  Reference to the Texan who kamikazed into the IRS building.  Some might freeze and do nothing.  I’ve been guilty of that for too long now and I think it’s my typical, though not my only, response.

The Klontzes note that today, especially so in the developed world, money means survival.  Without money we can’t pay the rent or a mortgage to meet our need for shelter and safety.  Without money we can’t eat and thereby meet our need for food.  Without money we often can’t meet our need for social and physical interaction as much of today’s socializing occurs through some sort of electronic device or in person but in some space like a coffee shop or a restaurant for which we often need money.  Many people need money just to drive or take public transportation to get to those socialization spots.  Nearly every basic human need is somehow intricately, if not irretrievably, interwoven with money.  So whenever we don’t have money, whenever we lose money or meet with those trying to take it from us, that animal response often gets triggered.

I’ve mentioned repeatedly in prior posts that I’m awaken nearly every day by the telephone ringing.  Student loan companies, credit card companies—you name it and they call whenever they can and as often as they can.  My response?  Flight.  I roll over and go back to sleep and try to escape that reality.  But once I flee too many times, I then begin to start fighting back—but to the wrong people.  I finally received the check from the attorney I conducted the legal research for.  That was $200 extra dollars I didn’t have.  By the time he finally responded to my emails a few days had passed and I scanned the last email I had sent him and was shocked at how aggressive it came off.  Completely unlike me.  I emailed him on the same day I got into the email embroglio with the Colleague, though I don’t recall now if I contacted the Colleague before or after reaching out to the other attorney.  Either way, I was clearly feeling threatened by the lack of income and the amount of debt and I decided to fight.  Not sure it was the smartest route even though it was partially successful.  And where the student loans and credit cards come in, my reaction has been to freeze.  I just become immobile.  I don’t do anything.  For example, finally, this morning, after hitting 128 days overdue, I called the federal student loan servicing company and asked for a forbearance.  I waited this long partly because I suspected that one had to be brought current before a forbearance could be granted.  I also had hoped I’d be able to make a payment and bring the account current.  But mostly I waited because I was just frozen.   Faced with the rising threats all around me, I just didn’t act.  But today I finally acknowledged that I couldn’t bring that account current just yet, and because I was facing defaulting on those loans—something horrible to imagine—I called and asked for a forbearance, which they granted for six months.  And already total red is down by over two thousand from yesterday.  I examined all the accounts and the only one that’s moved is my federal student loan.  I suspect that whatever had been due was put aside to be added back on once I come out of forbearance.  Or it’s just a glitch in their software system and it’ll be back to $229K tomorrow.

Many of us berate and belittle ourselves because of these primal reactions to “financial” threats.  We overreact (fight); we escape (flight); or we do nothing (freeze).  And once we come out of it, we compound our difficulties by beating ourselves up even more.  I could have gone on a shame spiral this morning for not addressing this situation sooner.  But what would that accomplish?  Subconsciously I suspect it’s already happening to a degree: probably explains my stiff neck and achy shoulders.  Aside: I suspect that many of those massages I sought out were really flights from the stress of my situation couched in attempts to alleviate physical pain.  Just like the guy in the video referenced above, sometimes our rational mind doesn’t resurface until it’s had its way and gotten us away from the perceived danger.  The key is watching out for warning signs.  If you find yourself craving some unhealthy food, did something set you off earlier?  An argument with the boss?  Someone cut you off on the drive to work?  Mother Nature is pretty brilliant and pretty stupid when you think about it because a fight with a co-worker or a rude clerk at the store is no threat to our survival.  Yet that adrenaline kicks in and takes over.  If you start to fell a response coming on, try to let it wash over you.  Oftentimes, you can’t do anything to stop it until it’s run its course.  Your up against Mother Nature’s ten thousand years of practice in ensuring our survival.  But we can unlearn those primal behaviors.  That is, after all, what separates us from the “lower” animals, right?

One Response

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  1. Thank you for articulating this. I think many people react by freezing, but this is the first time I’ve seen it expressed so well.

    My reaction in most situations of physical danger is to fight (fleeing never enters my mind, and I have been in situations where others have fled or frozen). But with my own financial mess, I froze. I ignored the overdue notices from the credit card people. I concentrated on other tasks to avoid thinking about the mess I was in. When the credit card folks did reach me, I was unable to deal with them rationally. I’m realizing that I am in many respects still “frozen” by concerns over finances, and am going to start looking at that.

    Glad to hear you got the forebearance started, it’s a step toward unfreezing.


    February 27, 2010 at 09:24

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