Fight, Flight, Freeze: What It Means and Why It Happens

A driver ran a red light and just barely missed your car. You are clearly shaken by the experience and trembling. This scenario is an example of how your fight, flight, freeze response is triggered. For generations, humans have been surrounded by danger whether it’s stemmed from dangerous predators, not knowing where our next meal would come from, or just staying warm during cold months. When presented with these dangerous situations our body quickly starts the fight, flight, freeze response.

The changes that occurred to our body during this response would help us survive. We would run or fight the predator. In some cases, we would freeze so we could think things through a bit more. Though the lives of humans have greatly changed in recent generations our bodies still have the same fight or flight response as our ancestors. Read on to learn more about how this response changes our bodies both physically and mentally and what we can do to help control it.

What Is Fight, Flight, Freeze?

The fight, flight, freeze is your body’s natural stress response to certain situations. According to Very Well Health, “The fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response), refers to a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is mentally or physically terrifying.”

This response is our body’s way of saving us from danger. In the past, it saved us from animals that were trying to attack us or kept us focused during a long hunt. However, nowadays, when the response is triggered it’s not always because of a truly dangerous situation and that’s when the fight, flight, freeze response becomes a problem. It’s in these situations that we need to learn to recognize our fears and anxieties to overcome them.

What Causes It?

Fight, flight, freeze is a stress response that releases hormones to activate the sympathetic nervous system. In turn, “the sympathetic nervous system then stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines (including adrenaline and noradrenaline).” reports Very Well Health. This whole process is what causes the physical and mental changes in the fight, flight, freeze response.

One of the interesting aspects of this response is that it can be triggered by not only physical danger but emotional danger too. Public speaking is an example of a psychological threat that initiates the fight, flight, or freeze response.

Physical Changes

Your body goes through some serious physical changes when fight, flight, freeze kicks in. Here is a list to help you understand what is happening to your body:

  • Increased heart rate: Your heart rate will go up in order to bring more oxygen and nutrients to your body. This will give you the energy to respond to the threat.
  • Fast breathing: Breathing fast will bring more oxygen into your lungs and get rid of carbon dioxide faster. This exchange in your lungs is intended to optimize your muscles and tissues for the best fight, flight, or freeze response.
  • Dilated pupils: Your pupils will enlarge to bring more light into your eyes to improve your vision. Better vision means better awareness of your surroundings.
  • Shaking: The hormones flowing through your veins cause your muscles to tense and feel shaky. It’s all getting you ready to run or fight.
  • Flushed skin: Your skin might get a little pink or red, this is from the increase of blood flow to your head.

Psychological Changes

The fight, flight, freeze changes don’t only affect you physically but also psychologically. Here is a list of all the changes happening in your brain and nervous system:

  • Heightened senses: You’ve perceived danger so now your brain is working overtime to understand what is happening around you. Your senses are heightened, you see better, and your sense of smell and touch is finer.
  • Lessened pain: It’s amazing what your body can do when it’s under stress. Your ability to sense pain will be reduced so you can focus on the dangers you’re facing.
  • Racing thoughts: There is a lot to process when you are in fight, flight, or freeze. You may have racing thoughts in order to prioritize necessary actions and to move quickly.

Why Do We Need It?

The primary reason we fight, flight, freeze is to keep ourselves safe. According to Carolyn Fisher, Ph.D. from the Cleveland Clinic, “During the response, all bodily systems are working to keep us alive in what we’ve perceived as a dangerous situation.” As humans evolved we needed this response. It’s still important today, just in different ways.

When our body is stressed we need many of the physical changes caused by fight, flight, freeze. If you are sick, an increased heart rate will provide your tissues the extra oxygen and nutrients to heal. But when this response kicks in at a time when it isn’t necessary it can make you uncomfortable causing you to feel off.

Why It Can Be Dangerous

“Our fight or flight response was designed to help us through catastrophic circumstances,” says Dr. Fisher from the Cleveland Clinic. “If you think about it from an evolution standpoint, it makes sense because we used to have a lot more life-threatening emergencies.” But just because real dangers aren’t a part of our everyday lives doesn’t mean our bodies have lost the fight, flight, freeze response.

Nowadays, when this response is activated it can be from a psychological event. Something that stresses us like public speaking, going to work, or even thinking about unpleasant events we can go into fight, flight, freeze.

The fight, flight, freeze response can overreact and activate unnecessarily. According to Healthline, it’s common in people who have experienced traumatic events and have anxiety. When fears and anxieties trigger your response it can put you in a state of chronic stress, says the Cleveland Clinic. Having too much stress can be detrimental to your health, causing headaches, exhaustion, and muscle tension.

How to Control Your Response

Thankfully, there are several ways you can cope with an overactive fight, flight, freeze response. Incorporating relaxation techniques “can counteract the stress response with the relaxation response” reports Healthline. Some examples of these techniques include deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and tai chi.

Another way you can cope with the stress is with physical activity. Physical activity has been shown to lower your stress hormones, increase endorphins, and provide a sense of calmness. This doesn’t mean you need to start running marathons. Something as simple as a daily walk can help clear your mind and allow you to refocus.

When to Seek Help

When you are in a continuous state of fight, flight, freeze response then it is time to reach out for help from a healthcare professional. If you don’t know where to start, call your primary doctor’s office for referrals. “A mental health professional can help you determine the underlying cause of these feelings. They can also create a plan to reduce your stress response, depending on your symptoms and mental health history” says Healthline.

The fight, flight, freeze response is your body’s way of keeping you safe. It causes both physical and psychological changes to protect you from threats. When the response is triggered too frequently or unnecessarily it can create stress that can have serious effects on your body. With the help of a mental health expert, you can learn to identify those triggers and how to cope with the stress.

Patty Weasler, RN

Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she’s not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.

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