Let's Talk about Fight, Flight and Freeze

When we are faced with stress, we are impacted in primarily two places – the brain and the body. Let's take a look at these three common stress responses, fight, flight and freeze, and how they show up in our brain and body. 

By Momentous Institute | Jan 26, 2022
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By now, you’ve likely heard the term “fight, flight or freeze” to describe how people respond to stress. Sounds simple enough, right? When faced with a stressor, most people respond with one of these methods – they fight back against the stress, they leave, or they freeze in place. But what does it really mean? How do these stress responses show up? Let’s take a quick look.

When we are faced with stress, we are impacted in primarily two places – the brain and the body. We can sometimes identify how one or the other responds to stress, but we don’t often take a holistic view. For example, we may know that when we’re stressed, we have stomachaches (body) or we can’t think clearly (brain) but we may not be aware of how it all ties together. Very briefly, we’d like to break each of these stress responses down into how they show up in the brain and the body.

One quick note – it is important to remember that our body responds to stressors, both real and perceived. That means that the body may jump into fight, flight or freeze even if the stressor isn’t a real threat. It’s important to pay attention to our body when we notice these stress responses in us, even if we’re surprised by what caused them. Sometimes it’s easy to guess why we have a stress response, and sometimes it can come out of nowhere. Understanding our body’s response to stress can help us better manage these responses in the future.


FIGHT

The brain:

Of course, these stress responses are unconscious reactions, not well thought out, measured reactions. But in fight mode, it’s as if the brain is saying, “If I attack first, this threat can’t attack me.” Or, “If I attack, I can weaken this threat’s attacks at me.”

The body:

In fight mode, the body may experience a rush of adrenaline, and/or tightened fists or joints, as though preparing to physically fight. The body may have digestive issues or may have a trembling or shaking sensation. A person in fight mode may have outbursts, use physical violence or aggressive.

 


FLIGHT

The brain:

The brain in fight mode is signaling to the body that there is danger – it is like sounding an alarm, alerting the body to escape and flee to safety. When the alarm is activated, other regions of the brain, those required for logical thinking and problem solving, don’t function as well.

The body:

The body in flight mode is focused on getting out of there – so the body may respond by leaving the situation, walking or running away, or hiding or retreating.

 


FREEZE

The brain:

In freeze mode, the brain is so overwhelmed by the threat that it shuts down as a protective measure. In this stress response, many of the normal functions of the brain are not available.

The body:

The body may respond to stress by becoming disengaged or numb. This can look like “playing dead” or being unresponsive. Physically, the body’s heart rate can decrease to sub-optimal levels.

 

It is important to note that the brain doesn’t have time to make a conscious decision about which stress response is most appropriate for the situation. It simply responds instantly and automatically. It is the brain’s way of protecting the body from danger!

So what can we do with this information?

Pay attention to your body’s response to stress. How do you typically respond? Did any of the above ring true for you? Do you have more of one type of response than another?

What triggers stress responses in you?

What helps soothe you and bring you back to a more regulated state?

The brain and body connection is very powerful. When we are aware of how our body is responding to our environment, we can better care for ourselves, both physically and mentally. 


Click here for a printable poster on fight, flight and freeze. 

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