The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

What is the fight, flight or freeze response?

When we feel anxious, stressed or uncomfortable, we might notice signals from our body such as:

  • Breathing becomes quicker and shallower
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension or soreness
  • Feeling hot and sweaty
  • Nausea and “butterflies" in the stomach
  • Trembling or shaking hands and feet
  • Dry mouth
  • Changes in vision
  • Cold hands
  • Feel dizzy or lightheaded
  • Bladder urgency

These signals may indicate that our stress response, also called the "fight, flight or freeze response" (FFF response) has been activated.

Why do we have this response?

When our mind detects a threat or danger in the environment, it activates a chain of internal events that helps the body prepare for action. From an evolutionary perspective, this response helped our ancestors survive and have children. It would help them fight the danger, get away from the danger, or freeze until the danger passed.

Most of the time we do not have to focus on day-to-day survival. However our FFF response can still be activated when we experience other perceived “threats” in our environment such as talking in class or sitting an exam. Our brains can send danger signals to our bodies, which in turn activates the FFF response.

If this response builds up, or happens when we are not really in danger, rather than helping us to act it can often get in the way of what we are trying to do.

How can we manage this response?

  • Firstly, it is important to recognise that our FFF has been activated
  • Acknowledge that our mind is telling us that we are unsafe and the body is trying to help us cope
  • If we are not in real danger, we can reassure ourselves that we are safe
  • Calm breathing and relaxation techniques can help calm the body
  • If the feelings are intense, we can reassure ourselves by saying coping statements such as "this will pass", "I can cope", "I will be OK"