How Do You Know When To Fight Flight Or Freeze?

By Stephanie Kirby|Updated June 16, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Aaron Horn, LMFT

Have you ever felt scared, threatened, or in danger? Chances are, you reacted one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. These are the natural responses in each of us. They can serve a purpose in the right moments, but these neurobiological mechanisms can also stop you from doing what's best. Learning how to recognize these responses will help you know how to handle them.

Do You Know How Your Body Responds to Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

What Is Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

Back in the 1920s, a physiologist named Walter Cannon described what he called the acute stress response. It's also been called the fight or flight response. In the years since, physiologists and psychologists have continued to build on and refine Cannon's work. They've come to a greater understanding of how people react to dangerous events using what they now call fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

  1. To fight is to confront the threat aggressively.
  2. Flight means you run from the danger.
  3. When you freeze, you find yourself unable to move or act against the threat.
  4. 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 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 and return to a feeling of calm and control. While you have a natural inclination toward these responses, through the strategies shared below and/or therapy, you can learn to control your response.

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, your nervous system shifts into the acute stress response. Specific physiological reactions take over your body, and you may feel mental and physical health changes morphing you into something you don’t recognize.

1. The Physiological (Bodily) Stress Response

The physiological response to anything that seems to threaten our survival is complex, but it all happens 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:

  • 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 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 flight. Or, your mind may become blank, making it difficult to decide what to do next.

Several psychological responses can happen. You feel anxiety. Your focus shifts to broader concerns, diminishing your attention to smaller tasks. Both the physiological and psychological stress shift your body and mind into survival mode.  Fight or freeze response and flight or fight response have served an essential purpose for all creatures throughout history. They give us a chance to overcome danger or escape it so 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 choice has a lot to do with your beliefs. If you believe 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 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.

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

Do You Know How Your Body Responds to Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

Flight

The fight response happens when you feel you're in physical 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. Your body diverts blood flow to “fuel up” your muscles in anticipation of the impending fight. As a third stress response, even the blood vessels in your face will seem to heat up. 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

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.

High Stress Causing You To Fight, Flight Or Freeze?

Learn Healthy Ways To Manage Your Stress With An Online Therapist

Flight

When you believe you can overcome the danger by running away, your brain prepares your body for a flight response, and your reaction begins with a sense of uneasiness. 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 as your nervous system prepares you to flee:

  • 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

Freeze

When you feel neither running nor fighting is the best choice, you can freeze instead. Animal and human freezing behaviors are a way to ensure immediate safety while assessing the situation. A freeze response like one of these can make you motionless:

  • 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 tolerating the stress

Fawn

When you've tried fight, flight, or freeze several times without success, you may find yourself using the fawn response. People who tend to fawn typically come from abusive families or situations, and they experience some form of codependency

For example, if you're the abused child of a narcissistic parent, your only hope of survival might be compliance and helpfulness. 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. Your responses are codependent of their attitude and treatment toward you.

What Happens Afterward

The fight flight freeze response is a built-in defense mechanism against any perceived threat, real or otherwise. Stress effects impact people differently, and as a result, they react differently, even after the threat is gone.

So how is the brain responsible for any of this? 

It controls the autonomic nervous system, which operates all of your vital systems: breathing, eating, circulating blood. The good thing is that you usually don’t have to worry about any of this. Your body runs on autopilot most of the time. After standing your ground to fight or taking flight and running, you may notice that your tries to “catch up” with itself. Your adrenal glands, which ride atop your kidneys, 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 things that are prickly to the touch. When you come into contact with these stressful stimuli (and others), your body may sweat and your temperature may rise in anticipation of stress. You may even feel more lightheaded.

Just as the sympathetic nervous system helps you gear up for the fight or flight response, the parasympathetic nervous system calms you down once danger has passed. Called the “rest and digest” period, it allows your body to recompose itself before carrying on. That explains why some people like to eat or drink something and then take a rest after experiencing a dangerous situation.

But what happens if the systems don’t work together to protect 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 physiological changes and mental and emotional disorders. They can create a real psychological danger.

  1. Making an Inappropriate Choice. Everyone makes the wrong choice of how to respond at one time or another. Sometimes, it isn't very important, but often 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 to one meaningless detail. 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 to perceived threats.

Understanding Your Main Response Type

Many people tend to prefer one or two main types of stress responses. These responses become habitual patterns repeated over and over, and they affect overall health conditions. 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.

As discussed above, the main four response patterns are fight, flight, freeze, or 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

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

  1. Fight type: Narcissism
  2. Flight type: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
  3. Freeze type: Dissociative Disorders
  4. Fawn type: Codependency

What to Do about the Feelings of Flight Fright Freeze Fawn

Stress is something that happens automatically when you feel threatened. If you’re experiencing chronic stress, you’re likely feeling downshifted and unable to make healthy decisions for yourself. The clinical implications are many. Your heart rate can elevate, and even your aching teeth urge you to take action – any kind of action in response to handling the perceived threat aggressively. Over time, these responses wear away at your overall health.

What you can do, though, is find healthier ways to deal with those responses when they happen. A licensed therapist can help you learn to recognize when your brain is engaging in flight-fright-freeze-fawn responses, before choosing the option that's safest for you in that situation. There are also times when there is no legitimate threat, but our brains want to engage in a stress response due to past trauma. Research shows that online therapy can play a significant role in helping people avoid flight, fight, or freeze responses that are inappropriate due to past trauma. 

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. 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.

How the Fight or Flight Response Affects PTSD

A continued fight or flight response could trigger another condition: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although not everyone may develop PTSD, the prolonged exposure to intensely stressful situations might cause flashbacks and bad dreams. Danger flight is a real possibility, and so are the fight and human freezing responses.

The person diagnosed with PTSD and an exaggerated stress response might not remember the specifics of their trigger, but they instead experience reactive behaviors such as nervousness, sleep deprivation and outbursts of anger. Anxiety disorders may become more apparent, requiring therapeutic intervention, such as Ashley Addition Treatment provides.

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

Seek Help

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 issues related to your fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses. You may read reviews of a few therapists below, from people experiencing similar issues.

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