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Freeze, fight or flight! – choosing an Act of Kindness

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Maria Richards

Spring 2015

OMG My Car is on Fire!

Freeze, fight or flight! – choosing an Act of Kindness

I was reminded first-hand the other day of how our unconscious mind can move in pretty rapidly to take over the functions from clear thinking in order to move us out of what it perceives as clear and present DANGER! And yes I mean real perceived DANGER, because as my senses locked onto the acrid smell, my periphery vision clocked the billowing white smoke pouring into the small cab of my beloved sporty convertible car. For a moment I allowed the car to continue its momentum although I had stopped all physical action – “I mean really, is this happening?” Then in a flash my internal alarm system, the primal brain, hijacked all rational thoughts as I heard myself saying “OMG my cars on FIRE!!” 

Okay I’m still here – in one piece, uninjured (PHEW!)

But in that moment all hell broke loose, physically I started to shake, mentally I was switching from a sensation that screamed OMG, to trying to access the ability to stay calm, whilst shallow breathing, even holding my breath. “JUST GET OUT”, came back! Rational thought may have dictated that I find a safe place to park, out of the built up area, away from the closeness of family homes on what was a narrow street. Uh huh… that was swallowed back into a dry, dimming recess, because the next thing I recall was trying to unlock the car door and finding that with a metal clunk, it wouldn’t budge. “Don’t fight it, don’t breath, stay calm and count to 5!” Okay so some rationality crept back, didn’t it? – AND 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the door opened. NOW remember to turn ignition off. Okay I’m regaining my senses now – then OMG I realised I’d left my phone in the car and up came another surge of emotion, and as heightened emotions can make us either incredibly brave or unfortunately stupid (in this scenario I invite you to choose) – I went back in!

Now why am I telling you this story, well yes, it is a great example of the mechanism for survival. As a species we have evolved automatic rules, which stem from making a primal choice ‘freeze, fight or flight’. Spin the wheel and hope you get lucky. After all it’s these split second choices that our ancestors made which won or lost their day and led to you and me standing here!

In much the same way, it’s the choices of those around us in times of stress or danger which lead to outcomes that could prove disastrous for them or ultimately rewarding.

Okay back to the plot, so I had my phone, a new phone which had arrived that morning.

You guessed it. ALL my contacts were in my old phone, which I had with me but it was no longer connected. Zilch service availability! In that moment of heightened emotion ‘how do you make an emergency call on an unknown phone whilst your hands are shaking? Not to mention how recall fails – do I dial 999 on a mobile?’ I walked about 10 steps up to a house and knocked, I tried the door bell but couldn’t hear any chimes… no response, and the smoke was increasing in volume because I couldn’t see the inside of my car. At that moment a ‘man jogging’ ran to my rescue and used his mobile to call the emergency services.

We often hear how in times of need, the most unexpected things can happen, people will even risk their own lives for strangers without a second thought. It’s almost as if when we see something happening to somebody else, we have the ability to mirror how we would feel ourselves in those circumstances. It’s at that moment that if we choose to empathise we can make a choice which, once we are committed to, will motivate us into action. We can even take ourselves by surprise.

The lady (I’ll call her Jill) who lived in that house took what seemed like an eternity to answer, (well to be honest on reflection I’m pretty sure that I was in time warp, high levels of anxiety can affect how we perceive time, I was imagining that my car would explode any second). My convertible was now full of acrid white smoke, and literally within feet of a vehicle parked on her car-port. However, she opened the door appearing to smile and spoke in a calm supporting voice. Even though I was shaking and couldn’t think of what street I was on, she calmly took the phone and gave details to the emergency services.

The jogger wished me well once his mobile was returned and moved pretty fast to continue his own journey. Jill, the stranger who came to my aid, made me a cup of tea, encouraged me not to fret, because after all there were no flames coming from the car. ‘Oh yes…I thought.’ Okay cognitive brain coming back on line now – but still on alert!

Jill’s kindness didn’t end there, once the fire service arrived she remained by my side like an old and trusted friend. Not because she thought her own car would be damaged by an impending explosion or that her house might go up in flames but because she could see that I was in distress and she wanted to reach out to support me. As the chaps investigated for signs of fire with their heat seeking equipment the smoke had already started to abate.

The brigade even called a car dealer to help source the fault that caused the drama – in fact one of their team admired my car so much he asked me how much I would sell it for. He was thinking about getting this style of classic car for his wife’s birthday.

Continuing with her kindness, Jill offered me her land line to call recovery services and any loved ones. She took me in, turned over her remote for the TV, more tea flowed, and even offered me her last biscuit and the use of the bathroom.

Now here’s the kicker – when we speak of acts of kindness we very often talk of ‘paying it forward’. The opportunity for me to ‘pay it forward’ came a lot sooner than expected, because you see I had something of benefit for Jill too – it’s just that I didn’t know it yet.

During that hour we waited for the recovery service, within our shared time warp, my own neurology became settled. We entered the spirit of small talk and very soon we began to have a far deeper conversation, so much so the Television was switched off.

Things are not always as they appear, people can be carrying the burdens of their own private struggles, sometimes things that would surprise those who they are close to on a daily basis. What Jill told me is not for publication here, but I can say that I had the opportunity to serve her by helping her review and take a fresh perspective on those things that heightened her own anxieties and fears. Just as she had calmed me down through being attentive and guiding my perspective on a situation that was resolved, I was able to acknowledge her in kind. All it took was listening attentively and in that moment discovering together that I held a key piece of information that would encourage her to escape from a situation, which she perceived to hold an element of danger for her. Now this was something concrete, based on fact, and information proven to help many people. It changed what had been a downward spiral at the start of her day and motivated her to find out more, because this new knowledge gave her hope. OMG!!!

It was dark outside when the recovery man arrived, and Jill and I stood together admiring the skill and precision and care he took securing my vehicle. Ensuring it was supported and would arrive safe and secure at its next destination.

As we said goodbye I told Jill she had been an Angel and thanked her for all her kindness. She looked at me and said that she thought the universe had a way of bringing people together who could help each other. She believed that the knock on her door had been for a purpose and that she was so glad she had answered the call, because given how her day had started it had been a split second decision that had made her respond and she was grateful, she thanked me and gave me a hug.

Much later that night, car now safely with a local garage, I was able to collate the information, which would enable Jill to follow up and find guidance to help her, help herself and continue on her journey.


My car was repaired, apparently a highly unusual motorised burnout connected to the soft top and due to water ingress. My car has now gone to a new owner – not the fireman’s wife though!

Jill received the information to help her further her understanding and greatly alleviate her concerns giving her the motivation to take positive action. If I ever hear someone say that these days people are unhelpful or cynical I tell them this story.

Finally please try to remember: In an emergency there is a button for emergency calls on all mobile devices, it works even if you forget the pin to unlock your phone – something I already knew but lost the memory of in that moment!

Acts of kindness don’t have to be grand gestures, sometimes it’s those simple things that can mean the most. Acts of kindness have been shown to alleviate low mood and lift general self-esteem (for the person giving as well as receiving), because they give a sincere deep sense of value, meaning and purpose and love to our lives. Here are a few suggestions – can you add to this list?

  • Smile at someone you see regularly every day
  • Volunteer for a few hours a week at a charity
  • Tell a friend what it is that you appreciate about them which means they are valued
  • Plant a tree to share with others
  • Offer to drop off groceries to an elderly neighbour who had difficulties getting out and about
  • Ask someone how there day was and listen attentively
  • De-clutter your home and sell any good stuff on line then give the proceeds to charity
  • Pick up any litter on your road and bin it
  • Compliment on a job well done
  • Share something without being asked

Sources: For ideas…