Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Why and How We Respond to Stress

Have you ever wondered why your heart races frantically before you make a presentation? Or why you stumble over your words when talking to your boss? Or why you just feel uneasy when walking in a particular neighborhood, even if nothing has happened? 

These quick responses are part of your fight, flight, or freeze system. They are your body’s automatic physiological reaction to a real or perceived threat. This system is in place to help you survive- your body works very hard to ensure that you’re safe. 

What Exactly Is Happening in the Body During Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

The neuroscience behind the fight, flight, or freeze response may sound complex, but it’s basically a reinforced cycle of coding and processing threats. 

Your amygdala is the powerhouse driving the fight, flight, or freeze response. This part of the brain reacts to various stimuli and detects them as dangerous. It transmits important emotional messages to your hypothalamus, which communicates with the rest of your body via your autonomic nervous system. 

The autonomic nervous system contains two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system creates the freeing effect. 

When these systems become activated, it’s normal to experience fluctuations in your:

  • Heart rate.
  • Ability to breathe.
  • Body temperature.
  • Tolerance to pain.

It’s normal to cycle through the fight, flight, or freeze cycle, although some people have a more dominant response. That said, it’s difficult to control how you react. In most cases, the body returns to a natural homeostasis within half an hour. 

Can Anything Go Wrong With This Response?

Sometimes your fight, flight, or freeze response can be overactive. If this is the case, your brain may automatically code certain situations as dangerous, even if they are relatively benign. 

Overactivity typically results from experiencing trauma. When we undergo a trauma, our bodies work hard to protect ourselves from further danger. 

Unfortunately, the body sometimes jumps to conclusions and interprets danger even if the situation is relatively safe. For instance, if someone physically assaulted you, any scent that smells like the perpetrator may trigger the fight, flight, or freeze response. 

Anxiety may also affect how your brain detects danger. People with anxiety disorders struggle with excessive fear and worry about certain situations.

For example, if you feel anxious in social situations, you may experience an overactive stress response when making a difficult phone call. Or, if you have a phobia, you may spend a great deal of energy trying to avoid that fear from manifesting. This cycle can make doing basic tasks feel challenging. 

How Can You Improve How Your Body Reacts to Stress? 

It isn’t a secret that stress management is an important life skill for regulating both your physical and mental health. Although the fight, flight, or freeze response happens automatically, reducing your stress levels can help reduce the intensity of overactivity. 

Relaxation and Mindfulness Exercises 

Focusing on relaxing your body and aiming to be more mindful can have a profoundly positive effect on stress. You can achieve this by:

  • Taking deep, abdominal breaths when you feel overwhelmed.
  • Adding a meditation practice into your daily routine.
  • Grounding yourself with a positive affirmation, such as I am safe. 
  • Imagining a safe place when you feel anxious or scared.
  • Praying to your higher power or God. 

Take Care of Your Physical Health

Do you know how you start feeling cranky when you get too hungry? Or how you feel more overwhelmed when you’re tired? When you deplete your body from what it needs, your mental health can also take a toll. 

To reduce your overall stress, focus on prioritizing the essential parts of your routine, such as:

  • Eating consistently and choosing nutritious foods.
  • Being physically active each day.
  • Getting enough quality sleep.
  • Attending all medical appointments and taking any medications as prescribed.

Practice More Self-Care 

Self-care is an overarching term that refers to how you consciously attune to your needs. Self-care can mean many things, but when it comes to stress, it often entails slowing down, centering yourself, and surrounding yourself with positivity.

Some good ways to practice self-care include:

  • Spending time with loving friends and family.
  • Being in nature.
  • Following a structure and routine each day.
  • Pursuing creative passions, like art, music, or writing.
  • Setting boundaries with yourself and others.
  • Speaking more compassionately to yourself. 

Final Thoughts 

If your trauma or anxiety has impacted your well-being, therapy can help. Additionally, it’s important to learn what triggers, reinforces, and reduces the activation of your fight, flight, or freeze response. 
At Willow Counseling, we can support you in your healing process. We are here to help you manage your stress and work through the issues affecting your mental health. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation.

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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