The fight, flight, freeze response

Fight, Flight, Freeze is a built-in alarm system that tells us we are in danger. It can help us survive by creating an efficient way for our brain to recognize danger.  Before this response is triggered something happens that tells our brains that there is danger; this threat could be real or imagined.  When we drop a knife our brains automatically react and we move our foot quickly out of the way so we don’t get hurt.  We do not even have to think about this danger. Our brains make a quick decision….fight, flight, or freeze.  Our brains can recognize danger and help our bodies prepare for this danger. Hearts start pumping really fast, blood pressure rises, muscles tense, sweating increases, and digestion and immune systems shut down so energy can go to dealing with the crisis at hand. 

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When a bear comes out of nowhere….you RUN!! When you perceive a threat you know you won’t defeat, your body prepares you to flee from the scene.  Some signs of the flight response include: restless legs or feet, fidgeting or feeling tense, getting an urge to run, and/or having the sense of being trapped.  


The fight response happens when you perceive a danger that you believe you can defeat.   Some signs of the fight response are; crying, hands in fists, glaring, tight jaw, intense anger, homicidal/suicidal feelings, and/or you feel like stomping or kicking.  You may also know that you are in fight mode if you attack the source of the threat. 


When you believe that you cannot fight the danger and cannot physically escape it, another option is to freeze.  Some freeze responses include; feeling cold, feeling stiffness, holding your breath, and/or experiencing a sense of dread or numbness. 

These responses are healthy responses if the threat is real. However, some people find that their built-in alarm system is faulty and starts alerting them of danger where no threat actually exists.  This is when mental health suffers. If your mind perceives a threat that is not there, your brain and body will respond with fight, flight or freeze at an inappropriate time. Stress hormones will be released into the body to get it ready to respond.  This response can become a habitual pattern that is repeated over and over.  The more traumas you have faced in your life, the more faulty your alarm system could be and you can start relying on this habitual response every time your brain thinks it detects danger.  That kid who screams or kicks every time they are touched; their brain detects dangers and sends him straight into fight mode.  The student whose teacher raises her voice to get the attention of the class might shut down and refuse to answer; he is sent into a freeze response.   The adult that seems to leave the room every time something stressful surfaces, is sent into a flight response.

Fight, flight, freeze responses are meant as automatic responses to realistic threats. Ideally, when the brain decides that there is no threat actually present or no longer present, our bodies and mind can go back to a state of calm. When we are overwhelmed with stressors in our life and our fight, flight, freeze response keeps getting triggered, we can lose the ability to relax and enjoy the moment because stress hormones will continue to be released into the body.  Excessive stress can lead to physical and mental disorders.  We can live from crisis to crisis and burnout is inevitable.  When people find themselves in this pattern, they may want to take action to retrain their alarm response in their brains. Options may include relaxation activities such as meditation and mindfulness. If you feel like you may need more help, you might benefit from seeking counseling. At Aspire Counseling, we offer various types of psychotherapy as well as neurofeedback which is a technique that optimized brain function. To learn more about neurofeedback, click here. If you’d like to discuss options for resetting your brain’s alarm system, feel free to contact us.