Fight Flight Freeze: How To Recognize It And What To Do When It Happens

By Nicola Kirkpatrick

Updated December 07, 2018

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About a century ago, back in the 1920s, a physiologist named Walter Cannon described what he called the acute stress response. This response has been called the fight or flight response. In the years since then, physiologists and psychologists have continued to study this response, build on and refine Cannon's work. They've come to a greater understanding of how people react to threats using what they now call fight flight freeze and fawn.

What Is Fight Flight Freeze?

Fight flight freeze is a description of our responses to threat. In recent years, the fawn response has been added. To fight is to confront the threat aggressively. Flight means you run from the danger. When you freeze, you find yourself unable to move or act against the threat. With fight and flight both unavailable to you, you may find yourself hiding from the danger. Fawn is the response of complying with the attacker to save yourself.

How We Respond To Threats

When you feel threatened, your body immediately responds to the danger. Whether you spring into fight-flight freeze or even fawn, your underlying goal is to minimize, end, or avoid the danger in the situation and return to a feeling of calm and control.

Initiating Threat

Before the fight-flight-freeze response kicks in, something happens to make you feel you're in danger. This threat may be real or imagined. Someone or something may be threatening to cause you physical or psychological harm. As soon as you recognize a threat in your environment, your nervous system immediately shifts into the acute stress response.

The Physiological Stress Reaction

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The stress response is a physiological phenomenon that starts in the hypothalamus of your brain. The physiological response to anything that seems to threaten our survival is complex, but it all happens very quickly. The hypothalamus sets in motion a series of rapid changes in the nervous system and endocrine system that propel you into fight or flight.

The sympathetic nerves of your ANS (autonomic nervous system) become highly sensitive

Hormones such as adrenaline are released into your body from your endocrine system

  • Your heart rate speeds up
  • Your blood pressure shoots higher
  • Your pupils dilate
  • Your veins in your skin constrict to send more blood to your muscles
  • You begin to perspire
  • Your muscles tense up
  • Your smooth muscles relax, allowing your lungs to take in more oxygen
  • Digestion and immune systems shut down, so energy can go to dealing with the crisis
  • You begin to tremble
  • Your blood sugar may shoot up as your liver breaks down glycogen

Psychological Response

Along with the physiological response, you may experience psychological effects as well. Acute stress in the form of nervousness can increase the intensity of your anger or the speed of your quick getaway. Or, your mind may become blank, making it difficult for you to decide what to do next.

Several psychological responses can happen. You feel anxiety. Your focus shifts to the big picture, diminishing your attention to smaller tasks.

Both the physiological and psychological stress reactions happen to shift your body and mind into survival mode. These responses have served an essential purpose for all creatures throughout history. They give us a chance to overcome danger or escape it so that we can stay alive.

These responses can also be triggered at times when they aren't needed. When that happens, these drastic changes can damage our physical and mental health.

How To Recognize Fight Flight Freeze And Fawn

The fight-flight-freeze response you choose has a lot to do with what you believe. If you think you can conquer the danger, your body will jump into fight mode. But, if you believe there's no hope of defeating the attacker, you'll naturally respond by running away.

When you respond by freezing, it usually indicates that you feel you can't win either by fighting or running. The fawn response can happen when you can't fight or run. Instead, you choose to go along, trying to win over a person who is abusing you.

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It's one thing to understand the responses you might have when you feel threatened. What can help you the most is being able to recognize each type of response. Only then can you find a way to make better choices.

Fight

The fight response happens when you feel you're in danger, but you believe you can overpower the threat. Your brain sends messages to your body to quickly prepare you for the physical demands of fighting. Some signs you're in fight mode include:

  • You cry
  • You feel like punching someone or something
  • Your jaw is tight, or you grind your teeth
  • You glare at people or talk to them with anger in your voice
  • You feel like stomping or kicking
  • You feel intense anger
  • You feel like killing someone, perhaps even yourself
  • Your stomach feels tied in knots, or you have a burning feeling in your stomach
  • Your words include metaphors like bombs

You'll also know if you're in fight mode because you'll attack the source of the danger. The fight response can be extremely beneficial under certain circumstances.

Flight

When you believe you can overcome the danger by running away, your brain prepares your body for flight. Sometimes, running away is your best option. After all, unless you're a firefighter, you probably want to run out of a burning building. Here are some of the emotional and physical flight responses:

  • Your legs are restless
  • You feel numbness in your extremities
  • Your eyes dilate and dart around
  • You constantly move your legs and feet
  • You're fidgety
  • You're tense
  • You feel trapped
  • You exercise excessively

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Freeze

When you feel neither running nor fighting is the best choice, you can feel frozen instead. The following freeze responses can keep you stuck:

  • You feel cold
  • You have numbness in your body
  • Your skin is pale
  • You feel stiff or heavy
  • You have a sense of dread
  • Your heart is pounding
  • Your heart rate may decrease
  • You feel yourself 'getting used to' the stress

Fawn

When you have tried fight flight or freeze several times without being able to avert the dangers in your life, you may begin to use the fawn response. People who tend to fawn typically come from abusive families or situations.

For example, if you are the abused child of a narcissistic parent, your only hope of survival might be to become fawning, compliant, and helpful. You can recognize this if you notice that no matter how poorly someone treats you, you are more concerned about making them happy than about doing what's right for you.

Inappropriate Fight Flight Or Freeze Responses

Each type of response is appropriate in certain situations. The healthiest scenario is that you display flexibility in your responses. If you can overcome the danger, you stay and fight it. If you can't, and there's a way out, you run.

The problem for many people is that they respond one way when a different response would serve them better. These inappropriate responses can lead to mental and emotional disorders.

Making An Inappropriate Choice

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Everyone makes the wrong choice of how to respond at one time or another. Sometimes, it isn't very important, but usually, it has adverse effects. For example, if you fight an unwinnable battle when running would have been more appropriate, you may increase your danger rather than minimize it.

Getting Stuck In One or Two Responses

If you get stuck in one or two types of response, you don't have the flexibility you need to adapt to different situations. This often happens in posttraumatic stress disorder. If you face danger daily, you may come to rely on habitual responses instead of the responses most appropriate for each threatening situation.

Perceiving Threat Where There Is None

There may be a time when you feel threatened where no threat exists. Perhaps you don't have a complete understanding of the situation. You might have a stress reaction when you think something is about to happen after seeing one small detail that was there when it happened before. If you think there's a threat, your brain and body will respond to the threat with fight flight freeze or fawn, whether the threat is real or not. When that happens, it's nearly always an inappropriate response.

Understanding Your Main Response Type

Many people tend to prefer one or two main types of stress responses. These responses become habitual patterns that are repeated over and over. The more trauma you've faced in your life, the more likely you are to rely on a habitual response. The good news is that you can understand your patterns and develop strategies to make better choices in the present moment.

Types of Response Patterns

The main four response patterns are Fight Flight Freeze Fawn. Other patterns are combinations of these basic patterns. Common hybrid patterns include:

  • Fawn-fight: controlling threats in coercive and manipulative ways
  • Fawn-flight: avoiding the threat by becoming invaluable in the situation
  • Fawn-freeze: surrendering to the threat by taking on the victim role
  • Flight-freeze: avoiding threats by focusing on other situations

Mental Disorders Associated with Different Response Patterns

Some disorders tend to be associated with certain stress response patterns. Here are a few of the ones that have been identified:

Fight type: Narcissism

Flight type: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freeze type: Dissociative Disorders

Fawn type: Codependency

What To Do About The Feelings Of Flight Fright Freeze Fawn

Honestly, there isn't much you can do about the stress response. It is something that happens automatically when you feel threatened. What you can do, though, is find healthier ways to deal with those responses when they happen.

Recognize The Difference Between Real And Imagined Threats

Start by learning to recognize whether threats are real or imagined. When you perceive the same threat over and over, it helps to talk to a counselor about it. They can help you examine the threat more closely and understand it better. You may discover that what you perceive as a threat in the here and now is only a vague reminder of an earlier threat.

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Calm Or Act

When you are confronted with something you feel threatened by, you have two main choices: either you can do something or calm yourself. To help the stress response pass, you can breathe deeply, practice mindfulness of the present moment, meditate, pray, sing, write, or talk.

However, if the threat is real and you can do something about it, you need to act. Your body is geared up for action, whether that's running or fighting. What's more, by acting, you release the physiological burden of the stress response.

Make A Reasoned Choice

After the threatening event has passed, you can make better choices that will diminish your fear, increase your ability to respond to threats appropriately and flexibly, and learn to recognize when perceived threats have no basis in present fact.

Seek Help When Needed

Because the fight flight or freeze response is a physiological response, it can be very difficult to think about it rationally and logically. You react the way you react; what else can you do?

A therapist can help you deal with past traumas that may be causing you to react in inappropriate ways. They can teach you techniques for calming yourself when you realize a threat isn't real. They can also help you overcome mental issues related to your fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses. Licensed counselors at BetterHelp.com are available for online therapy now or whenever you're ready.

You don't have to continue to follow the physiological response to inappropriate thoughts or behaviors. You can take charge of your life and make better decisions, even in the midst of fear.


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