The primal mechanism of fight-or-flight results from sensory/memory combinations that the brain has stored as threats. I call these threat triggers. Most of our threat triggers are adopted DNA or survival information created during the early stages of development. While many times, they aren’t things we consciously perceive as threatening, the subconscious mind has determined them to be unsafe.
It’s easy to make this connection in the area of personal experience. If you almost die, the brain stores data from the event as a ‘threat of death.’ To prevent a reoccurrence of the event, it triggers the fight-or-flight response to redirect you. For example, if you have experienced trauma such as near-drowning when you connect again with sensory information related to that trauma—see or feel water—the sensory input will combine with the memory to create the chemical reaction of fight-or-flight.
When it comes to primal fears or historical memory, the trigger relates to something you didn’t personally experience. Primal fears are often prevalent in multiple humans, as they are inherent or inherited, like the fear of spiders and snakes or the dark. Social anxiety, fear of heights, or the trigger of disruptive patterns in conditions like trypophobia are also common primal fears. If you’ve never had a personal experience of threat but still have a fear trigger, you can likely attribute this to DNA.
The critical thing to remember here is that you cannot control this mechanism. If you’ve ever tried to overcome a phobia, you understand. When an animal encounters a life threat, it must respond instinctively without considering its actions. The primary survival instincts in humans are the same. These programs are unconscious ‘reactions according to training,’ acting as day-by-day, moment-by-moment survival mechanisms fiercely determined to keep us safe.
Survival mechanisms trigger any time the brain perceives a threat. This threat could be anything, like a time of year, the scent of a particular food, or a person that resembles someone we once knew. Perceived threats can be related to our job, home, history, or age. The list goes on, and with all things considered, they may have nothing to do with us. So, when we look at what is causing the trigger, peeling the onion of personal experience may or may not work.
Alternatively, we must also consider the complications that arise from how antiquated systems conflict with our current environment.
All primates exist under two fundamental rules of survival—safety in familiarity and strength in numbers or the recognition of a tribe. Humans are not pack animals, but we are a social species. A human infant cannot survive on its own, so we have an inherent sense of needing other humans to live. Like all primates, we bond to a tribe at a young age. However, unlike other primates, as humans mature, we often evolve to expand beyond tribal boundaries. This desire to move or even breed outside our tribe can create triggers.
While expansion is an evolved desire, the longing to connect with a tribe doesn’t always fade as we move beyond our family of origin. Since our subconscious mind will push to keep things the same as life continues to change, many of us still instinctively connect with new groups to enforce the same primal rules. In this case, anything threatening the strength of the chosen group or our position in the group becomes a trigger. Situations that are just a part of life, like changes in our environment, loss of societal status, being fired from a job, or ending a close relationship, are now perceived as threats, and the brain responds to those threats with the same fight-or-flight mechanism it would use when being chased by a tiger.
In addition to having triggers related to loss within the tribe, we also process anything that disagrees with tribal rules as unfamiliar, and our confirmation biases now become conflicts. As a result, we will live in an ‘us against them’ ideology: my race against your race, my gender against your gender, my religion against your religion, my political party against your political party, my generation against your generation, and so on.
The growing influence of people ‘outside our tribe,’ along with the ever-changing conditions of life, have become an almost constant threat. With over eight billion people on the planet, it is nearly impossible to live without change. We will all experience the loss of loved ones or exclusion from a group. We will have changes in employment, diet, or even how we see ourselves and our societal position. We will invade one another’s boundaries.
When living in primal survival mechanisms, life itself is the trigger. So much so that we have begun to think of it as inherent and incurable, but it is not. Change may be unavoidable, but it does not need to be triggering. Many of you reading this know that fear is not our only option. When we remove unnecessary threat responses, life’s ever-changing landscape becomes an adventure.