How Do You Know When To Fight Flight Or Freeze?
Content Warning: Please be advised that this article discusses topics related to trauma, abuse, profound distress, and other potentially triggering topics. Please read with discretion.
When individuals feel scared, stressed, or perceive danger, the body's sympathetic nervous system may react in a few ways, often referred to as the fight-flight-freeze response. The response can be natural and is caused by a release of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Determining when this response is occurring in your body and how to proceed can benefit your overall mental and physical health.
What Is Fight, Flight, or Freeze?
In the 1920s, a physiologist named Walter Cannon described what he called the acute stress response, later named the "fight or flight response." In recent years, physiologists and psychologists have continued to build on and refine Cannon's work. Since the initial studies, freeze and fawn have also been added to the body's stress response.
- 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.
- You may find yourself hiding from the danger. Fawn is the response of complying with the attacker to save yourself.
When you feel threatened, your body may immediately respond to the situation, whether it may harm you or not. Whether the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response occurs, your nervous system's underlying goal may be to minimize, end, or avoid the danger and return to a calm state.
The fight, flight, and freeze response may occur due to stress, anxiety, and trauma. In some cases, the body's response to a perceived threat does not align with the situation. For example, testing anxiety may trigger a heightened nervous system. Although a test may not cause long-term harm, an individual might feel urged to avoid it or feel frozen when it comes time to remember a piece of information.
When you are faced with an overactive nervous system, there are lifestyle changes, coping mechanisms, and treatment options to support you.
How Does The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response Work?
Before a fight or flight response occurs, there may be a perceived or real threat. You might believe that you will face psychological or physical harm as a result. Your nervous system may shift into the acute stress response as soon as you recognize a threat. Specific physiological reactions can take over your body, and you may experience mental and physical health changes.
1. The Physiological (Bodily) Stress Response
Physically, during the fight or flight response, your body and nervous system may start working to protect you. The hypothalamus sets in motion a series of rapid changes in the nervous and endocrine systems that propel you to act. You might experience the following physical symptoms:
- 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 constrict to send more blood to your muscles
- You begin to perspire
- Your major muscles tense
- Your smooth muscles relax, allowing your lungs to take in more oxygen
- Digestion and immune systems shut down so energy can be used for dealing with the crisis
- You begin to tremble
- Your blood sugar may shoot up as your liver breaks down glycogen
2. The Psychological (Mind) Stress Response
Along with any physical responses, you may experience psychological symptoms. Acute stress in the form of nervousness might increase the intensity of an emotional response. You may feel profound anger or fear. In some cases, individuals report feeling their mind "go blank" and are unsure how to act, which can be part of the freeze response. You may also experience the following:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- A focus on broader concerns, combined with difficulty focusing on minor tasks
- Hyperawareness of your surroundings or your body
- Feeling "frozen" or unable to move
Both physiological and psychological stress may shift your body and mind into survival mode. Humans are not the only animals that experience it. Other animals may also react in this way to danger.
The fight-or-flight response often protects us and keeps us alive. However, these responses can also be triggered when they do not fit the situation or may stay "turned on" for longer than needed. When this happens, it could have mental and physical health consequences.
Why Do Some People Fight And Others Flee?
You may freeze if you feel overwhelmed by your physical or emotional sensations. Some individuals might freeze in a traumatic situation if they believe or know they are unable to escape or fight back. This response may be due to previous attempts to fight or run that were unsuccessful in similar situations.
A fawn response is often associated with abusive relationships and traumatic interpersonal experiences. For example, someone who has unsuccessfully attempted to flee or fight may subconsciously or consciously fawn by attempting to appease someone abusive toward them in an effort to potentially escape or protect themselves from further abuse.
If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7 for support. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.
How To Recognize Stress Responses
When learning how to protect yourself and calm your nervous system, it may be valuable to understand what it feels like to experience each response.
The fight response may happen when you or your body believes there could be a chance to overpower or protect yourself from a threat physically. Your brain may send messages to your body to prepare you for the physical demands of fighting or defense. Your body may divert blood flow to your muscles in anticipation of a potential impending fight. You may feel your blood rushing to your cheeks, as well.
Some signs you're in fight mode include:
- An urge to physically attack through punching, kicking, or other methods
- A tight jaw or grinding teeth
- The urge to act
- Glaring at others
- Yelling or speaking with anger
- A feeling of intense anger
- Upset stomach
- Rapid breathing or heart rate
- Tense muscles
In certain circumstances, fighting may be a beneficial response. For example, if you are in a life-threatening situation where you cannot run away, you might fight to protect yourself before running.
Your brain may prepare you to run away in some situations. For example, someone may run out of a burning building if there is a fire instead of attempting to put it out themselves. During a flight response, you might experience the following:
- Restless legs
- Numb limbs or body
- Dilated eyes and hypervigilance
- Physically running
- Tense jaw
- A feeling of being trapped
- Fear or anxiety
- A feeling of shock, surprise, or confusion
- A desire to avoid
In some cases, individuals may freeze when a fight or flight response is not possible or has not worked in the past. It may also occur subconsciously. Animal and human freezing behaviors may be a way to ensure immediate safety while assessing a situation. You might experience the following during a freeze response:
- Feeling cold
- Numbness in your body
- Pale skin
- Feeling heavy or stiff
- A sense of fear, anxiety, or dread
- A pounding heart
- Decreased heart rate
- Dissociation (feeling outside of your body)
For example, if you had an abusive parent as a child, you might react to angry, abusive, or unkind people with compliance, fear, or complacency. You might be experiencing a fawn response if you find yourself attempting to appease others at the expense of yourself. You might also use this response subconsciously to protect yourself from further harm.
What Happens After A Stress Response?
The fight-flight-freeze response is a built-in defense mechanism against any perceived threat. Stress affects people differently; as a result, they may react differently, even after the threat is gone.
The autonomic nervous system controls stress and operates all your vital systems, including breathing, eating, and circulating blood. Your body runs on autopilot most of the time and regulates these systems. However, after standing your ground to fight or taking flight and running, you may notice that your body tries to "catch up" with itself. Your adrenal glands above your kidneys may have been controlling your blood pressure and regulating the fight or flight response.
The sympathetic nervous system, also operated by the brain, controls your response to sensory input like loud noises, unpleasant smells, and sensory dangers. When you come into contact with these stressful stimuli, your body may sweat, and your temperature may rise in anticipation of stress. You may also feel lightheaded.
As the sympathetic nervous system might cause a fight or flight response, the parasympathetic nervous system works to regulate the sympathetic system once the danger has passed. Called the "rest and digest" period, the time after a threat passes may allow your body to recompose itself before carrying on with daily tasks. Some people may eat or drink something and rest after experiencing an actual or perceived danger.
When the fight or flight response continues after a threat has passed, it may be considered chronic stress or a symptom of an underlying condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Inappropriate Fight, Flight, Or Freeze Responses
Each type of response may be beneficial in certain dangerous situations. Many people may experience more than one response in these scenarios. For example, someone may fight off an attacker and then run away. If they are unable to, they might freeze or fawn to attempt to stop the attacker.
However, some individuals might respond a certain way when it would be best to respond in another way. Or, someone might experience a fight or flight response after a threat has wholly disappeared.
At times, a body may respond inappropriately or incongruently to the threat. For example, if someone freezes during a fire when a window is open and available to leave through, they may be increasing their danger. Although this response may not be an active choice, there are ways to learn to ground yourself to make a healthy decision.
Remaining In A Fight Or Flight State Long-Term
In some cases, individuals may stay in a fight or flight state after a threat has passed or if a long-term, repeated threat does not disappear, such as an abusive relationship. Studies show that a prolonged fight or flight response can cause physical disease, a poor immune system, and chronic pain. Often, this response may occur in those diagnosed with PTSD.
Perceiving Threat Where There Is None
There may be a time when you experience a fight or flight response when no threat exists. This situation may occur with an anxiety disorder, daily stress, or panic attacks. For example, you may become overwhelmed and have the urge to run away when experiencing anxiety about a social situation.
Understanding Your Main Response Type
Many people might experience one or two main types of stress responses. These responses may become patterns used in many situations. If you have experienced trauma, you might experience a more habitual response that may not fit a situation. Understanding which response you experience can help you decide how to protect yourself in the future.
As the primary stress responses are fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, these responses may be combined in some cases. Common hybrid patterns may include:
- Fawn-fight: Attempting to control a threat through psychological actions, anger, or aggression
- Fawn-flight: Avoiding a threat through methods like the "gray rock" method
- Fawn-freeze: Surrendering to a threat and attempting to pacify it
Fight Or Flight And PTSD
A continued fight or flight response could be a sign of PTSD. Although not everyone may develop PTSD, prolonged exposure to intensely stressful situations might cause flashbacks and nightmares, among other symptoms.
The person diagnosed with PTSD might not remember the specifics of a trigger, but they may experience reactive behaviors such as nervousness, hypervigilance, or outbursts of angry behaviors. Anxiety disorders may accompany symptoms of PTSD. If you believe you may be experiencing PTSD, reach out for support. You are not alone.