Dreamwork as Spiritual Practice

Fight, Flight, Freeze… or Flow?

In a recent dream, I experienced several ways of responding to chaotic and frightening circumstances:

Dangers and Discovery: I’m in a forest as it gets dark and the wind rises. The tall trees are swaying and creaking, and several come crashing down quite nearby! Frightened, I try to find shelter, scampering around looking for a safe place. One of the fallen trees is apparently dead and rotten. It breaks apart as it crashes to the ground, and a beehive inside bursts open. Shiny black bees swarm out. I run desperately and they follow… But gradually, the swarm disperses and I return to the fallen tree. I search through the fragments of rotten trunk and broken branches, and find a chunk of heartwood that is soft and pulpy on one side, but smooth, hard, rounded and beautifully-grained, like polished agate or petrified wood on the other side. It is very special. I realize that the falling trees, swarm of bees, rotten wood, and this precious gift are all part of an initiation for young girls. I’m part of it, in my own way, as an older woman.

This dream coincided with some thoughts I’ve been having about our instinctive and natural reactions and responses to threatening situations. What happens when we get past our first fearful reactions, and respond instead with curiosity and openness? In the dream, this exploratory process is an initiation for girls. While traditional initiations for boys usually involve overcoming or standing up to our fears, perhaps a female form of initiation might allow for a variety of more complex responses. Both boys and girls, both men and women, might benefit from honoring all the choices that are available to us when we are confronted with crises or uncertainties. When we recognize that every situation offers alternatives, and we can choose our responses, we are entering into maturity, finding our place in this wild and wind-blown world.

When confronted with an unwanted experience, we respond instinctively in ways that reflect our most basic options—commonly called “fight or flight,” sometimes with a third possibility, to “freeze.” These responses evolved to cope with direct threats to our survival, and for the most part, they don’t serve us well when we are faced with difficult, complex interpersonal situations in the modern world.

These days, the basic instinctive responses might look a bit different from the prehistoric scenarios. Fight might not mean literally throwing a punch or a spear, but instead just throwing a tantrum, resisting, blaming, complaining, disrupting. Flight might not mean literally running away, but instead avoiding, denying, refusing, distracting. Freeze might not mean literally playing dead, hiding or becoming a “deer in the headlights,” but instead spacing out, going numb, dissociating, ignoring. Such strategies can be effective as immediate reactions to a shock, giving us a little distance from whatever unpleasantness is confronting us—but as long-term strategies, they are not only unsustainable, but potentially destructive. In the dream, I tried fleeing… but this didn’t really get me anywhere.

When we keep fighting, fleeing or freezing in response to the things that happen to us, we end up threatening others and setting off similar reactions in those around us. When I ran away, the bees seemed to chase me—if I hadn’t run, what then? When conditions are stressful, as in the United States under the current administration, the entire population can seem to be engaged in nothing but fighting, fleeing or freezing. Nothing works, and no one is happy or safe under these circumstances.

But there’s another response in our repertoire, which I believe is just as instinctive, just as natural, as the fight, flight or freeze response. We also have the capacity to respond to threats with flow. What does flow look like?

Flow is our resilience, creativity, adaptability. Flow is our capacity to respond to a threat or problem—and the accompanying rush of adrenaline—with curiosity, or humor, or surrender, or improvisation, or compassion, or investigation, or determination, as appropriate to the circumstances.

When we are experiencing flow, we are still experiencing a strong instinctive sense of urgency or intensity, but we are interpreting it in a more neutral way—for example, as excitement rather than fear, or as wrath rather than anger. Excitement is distinguished from fear because it fully alerts us in readiness, but includes the confidence that we will be able to handle the situation, and the possibility that what seems like a threat may in fact be something else. Wrath is distinguished from anger in that we are responding with energy and commitment to counteract an injustice, but not engaging in combat with an “enemy” or defending our rightness. Similarly, flow is distinguished from fight, flight or freeze because it involves the freedom to follow the circumstances as they change, without becoming locked into a stance that will ultimately prevent us from adapting to new information as it becomes available.

We often find ourselves fighting, fleeing or freezing in dreams, because dreams activate the primal emotional centers in the brain (particularly the amygdala and limbic system), but dreams also provide many opportunities to practice flow. I believe this is because flow is just as fundamental to our emotional brain as the more “primitive” reactions. Flow doesn’t require cognitive processing (which would be directed by other areas of the brain, less active during dreaming). It is just our natural, healthy, even playful, response to challenging or stimulating events. Yet, because the other three reactions tend to predominate, flowing can require some conscious cultivation.

In the dream of falling trees and pursuing bees, after her initial fleeing, the dreamer seems to change the story—so somehow the threat dissipates, and the dream-ego can return to the source of the fear and look more closely. Perhaps this flow response is possible because the dreamer recognizes that she is old enough, mature enough, to let the automatic reactivity pass her by, and follow her curiosity back to the place that had once dismayed her, the place where an initiation could occur, where she could find a gift to offer the next generation.

Generally, the more mature we are, the more likely we are to respond to critical situations with subtlety and flexibility rather than the “blunt instruments” of fight, flight or freeze. Then again, small children can sometimes respond in a flowing way to new situations that they have not yet learned to react to with fear or anger. In dreams, we have a chance to see that our learned expectations can be questioned, and our reactions and opinions are not pre-programmed absolutely.

This could have been a dream about crashing trees and angry bees—but it became a story of challenges, exploration, surprising gifts, endings and new beginnings. I’d like to see my life this way. When my circumstances disturb me—when I’m ill, or anxious, or exhausted, or angry—I don’t need to suppress that first reaction of fight, flight, freeze, but after the first reaction I can still go on to flow. The other day, when I’d been having a lot of pain and just reached my limit, I threw a little tantrum and flung all my books and papers and medications and… well, all my stuff, to the floor. I raged at myself for a few minutes. Then, I sighed, picked it all up, and went to bed and rested, and dreamed. The flow returned. Another time, after receiving some upsetting news, I froze for a while—unable to make decisions, respond to requests, or take action, distracting myself with too much television. But then, after a while, the freeze melted and I could respond again. The flow returned. Naturally, the flow does return, if you give it time.

What does it feel like to flow? What does it take for that feeling of flexibility and curiosity to kick in? How do you respond when confronted with crises, or just unexpected events? Without judging yourself, can you notice the fight, flight, freeze feelings, and leave room for the flow? Maybe your dreams are a place where you can practice. I keep returning to that tangled forest where everything falls apart, and finding, in the midst of the mess of my emotions, something precious, something to initiate a new way of being.


  1. kirstenbackstrom

    Another dream that relates to bees is “Bees and Babies” (http://www.compassdreamwork.com/bees-babies-culture-dreams/#more-2389)… a very different take on the theme of bees.

  2. fittsdr

    I meant to mention the other day…didn’t you have a dream recently in which there were wasps and a nest? I have not dug deep into your posts to find the other dream, but it is intriguing if true, that there seems, in my dream, to be a theme…?


    • kirstenbackstrom

      Yes, thanks for pointing this out. I wrote about another dream of being chased by bees (or wasps) recenty in “The Heart Dreams What the Heart Knows” (http://www.compassdreamwork.com/heart-dreams-heart-knows-prodromic-dreams/) —it’s listed above under “related posts.” Bees and wasps are definitely a personal theme for me, and I’ve written about them here several times. But they’re also just a powerful archetypal image. In many traditions, bees are guardians of the borderlands or thresholds—messengers, wisdom holders, allies, and also sometimes quite fierce. So I’m aware that they are significant for me—they seem to play several different roles in my dreams. Thank you, Royce!

  3. Lisa rigge

    Kirsten, A I read this, I thought “you need to write a book!” Your blogs are wonderful. This one took me to an unanticipated place – the flow! It’s near impossible not to flee or flight, although in waking life if danger is present, I am calm and can think and respond. It’s only later that I fall apart after the immediate crises is over. I too had a recent experience of sweeping books to the floor in anger. Better that than shouting obscenities at someone! It worked – the alignment with my emotions came quickly after that and I could think of a much better response and all went well. I have to admit, though, I never pictured you doing that! But it truly makes sense! Better to release those feelings in a way that doesn’t hurt you or anyone else. And I love the dream – bees and heartwood and the feminine initiation. I’m glad you discovered that before waking up and had the wherewithal to write this blog about it. Thank you.

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Lisa, I appreciate the way that you have read this article very much—you’ve added your own insights and experience, which deepens my own understanding of the things I’m writing about. Thank you! Incidentally, I’m actually pretty moody and impulsive—and have to work with my own instinctive (over-)reactions before I can find the “flow.” So small meltdowns are not at all uncommon with me! I try to see them as opportunities for reflection, practice, new discoveries… and, as you say, do my best to release emotional reactions in private, without being harmful.

  4. fittsdr

    did you really throw stuff? Whoohoo!! I am impressed! Thank you! I needed that!

    • kirstenbackstrom

      Thanks Royce! It’s good to be imperfect at times…

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