Fear & The Flight, Fight, Freeze Response

  • Time to read: 5 min.

Every day we encounter events that need us to respond to our fear and overcome certain dangers. These events might be someone attacking us, an oncoming car while we cross the road, or a persistent threat of war and conflict. It may be anything that reduces our safety and security.

The body has a natural, built-in stress response to threatening situations called the fear & the flight, fight, freeze response. The human body responds to these dangers and stressors so that we can protect ourselves. 

The fight, flight, freeze response refers to a hormonal change in the body during intense stress or fear.  Simply this is the body’s response to a perceived threat or danger. When this biochemical reaction is triggered, the sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to occur throughout the body.

How Does The Flight, Fight, Freeze Response Get Activiated?

The flight, fight, freeze response are the labels used to identify the process that occurs in the body, but what happens in the body?

When our senses receive warning signals, that are individual to each person, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands triggering the release of catecholamines. Catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline, regulate the body’s physiological functions. 

The release of the hormones speeds the heart rate and slows digestion. At the same time, the hormones cause blood vessels to contract, increase the heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and the blood flow to the heart and lungs, giving the body a burst of energy and strength.

What Happens When The Threat Is Gone?

When the perceived threat has ended, the body returns to normal functioning via the relaxation response. The return to normal happens when the stress of the situation disappears. If the pressure does not leave or becomes chronic, and relaxation doesn’t happen, damage to the body occurs.

The fight, flight, freeze response is an evolutionary development and can be suppressed, through intense work and training, to reduce the effects on the body.

The Advantages Of The Fight, Flight Or Freeze Response?

The fight, flight, freeze response prepares the body to take action. The body will need all of its resources to fight, flee or freeze. These responses are essential for the survival of humankind.

We gain information when we feel anxiety and fear, such as when danger is present, and it prepares us to act, to protect ourselves.

The Negative Effects On The Body?

The body takes anywhere from twenty to sixty minutes to relax and return its normal state after the threat is gone. However, when stressors are always present, and the feeling of being constantly under attack does not go away, the reaction does not turn off.

When the activation of the stress response stays on, the hormones released for short term protection begin to cause harm to the body and the processes of the body. The increased risk may lead to health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

Tools To Deal With The Fight, Flight, Freeze Response

Day to day, we face different stresses; financial, family, health, work. Sometimes it is out of our control to eliminate the stressors from our life. There are several things that we can do to overcome, reduce and manage stress and not have the fight, flight, freeze response stay active within us and enjoy life better and avoid the harmful health effects.

It is possible to manage the impact that stressful events have.  It takes practice, and change will not happen overnight. 

Try out the suggestions below and find those things that keep you being the best you day to day, physically and emotionally.  Then create a daily routine that includes these items.  Your list may have the following on it.

  1. Eat a healthy diet
  2. Limit stresses in your life
  3. Consistent sleep
  4. Utilize relaxation techniques
  5. Yoga
  6. Deep Breathing
  7. Get a massage
  8. Meditate
  9. Enjoyable activities = reading a book, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, gardening, hiking, woodworking.
  10. Foster healthy friendships
  11. Have a sense of humor
  12. Volunteering in your community
  13. Seek professional counselling
  14. Get regular exercise life
  15. Create a daily gratitude practice

The Genetic & Life Experience Connection

The flight, fight, freeze response activates when confronted with the object of fear directly or reliving the anxiety during a flashback, even if the situation is not currently present. The result is why we may shake, cry, become hostile or also run from the location.

Our reaction to a potentially stressful event is different from anyone else’s. According to the Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037, the response to life stressors is affected by genetics and life experiences.

1. Genetics

The genes that control the stress response keep most people on a relatively steady emotional level, only occasionally priming the body for fight or flight. Overactive or under active stress reactions may stem from slight differences in these genes.

2. Life experiences

Unresolved traumatic events in a person’s life can result in strong stress reactions.

People who were neglected or abused as children tend to be particularly vulnerable to stress. The same is true of people who have experienced violent crime, airplane crash survivors, military personnel, police officers and firefighters.

Think about the people you know. You may have some friends who seem relaxed about almost everything and others who react strongly to the slightest stress. Most people respond to life stressors somewhere between those extremes.

Can The Fight, Flight, & Freeze Response Be Avoided?

In short, the answer is no. 

As this response is biochemical, we have no control over the actual response.  However, we do have control of the majority of the stressors, fears, thoughts that begin this response.

There are tools to help manage the response. Having a strong foundation is key and knowing what to do and doing is always a challenge. You eat well, go to bed on time to get proper rest, exercise and meditate. 

Then one day, you stay up an extra hour visiting, the next day your tired and miss your meditation. When the spiral of not having a good base and being grounded begins to erode, it is helpful to notice as soon as possible. We all do it. When this happens, reset that which works for you to gain back your foundation, reestablish what firmly grounds you. 

Final Thoughts

If you plan, know your limits and make sure you don’t overextend yourself, you can alter the amount of stress, fear, anxiety and deal with the fight, flight, freeze response when those moments arise in your life.

Plan, know your limits and keep grounded.

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