How do you manage Fight Flight or Freeze?
This blog post is about understanding what your brain does when it’s fearful
Texting, crying, overthinking, feeling sick, scared, and overwhelmed….
- What is happening to you?
- What should you do?
- Where will you go from here?
When panic strikes, when you burst into tears yet again, when you can’t focus on your work or concentrate on what you should be doing, when you just can’t be around people, or you can’t actually DO anything – what is happening?
When you feel overwhelmed, the blackness seeping over you, the feeling of numbness and nothingness threatens to drown you, when you know that you don’t feel, can’t feel, can’t BE you anymore – what is happening?
When you feel your head is imploding, the words and thoughts crashing into your mind, the ideas, reasons, and meanings sucking you into the torrent, the never-ending mind chatter taking you down, down, down – what is happening?
What is happening to you?
What is happening here is a powerful physical experience of panic and fear resulting from a shock, trauma, unwanted or unexpected event.
The panic and fear may also occur due to long-term, relentless, ongoing, and unmanaged chronic stress.
You can also feel this fear simply because you imagine scenarios, think about negative outcomes, recall scary memories, or even think catastrophically.
The stress responses described in the first few paragraphs result from a brain hard-wired to respond powerfully to physical danger (such as lions, tigers or people who might hurt you).
Unfortunately, most of our stress results from triggers that cannot be managed physically in today’s environment.
When the threats in stressful environments live in your head in words, e.g., I can’t cope with this work, I won’t be able to speak up in the meeting, I won’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, your evolutionary response will be of little use.
You will want to Fight (take control), Flight (avoid) or Freeze (be unable to respond).
Let’s look at how these deeply ingrained responses happen, so we know how to manage them.
Flighting (or avoiding) the stressor
If you want to run from the stressor – you will want to avoid it or anything that comes from it. You will want to avoid painful thoughts, feelings, sensations, ideas, and memories. This is a strategy that can be very effective in the short term – that is, you will feel relieved and escape the hurt and pain associated with these thoughts and feelings.
However, in the long-term, you will find that these thoughts and feelings (rather than diminishing and becoming less frequent) become MORE frequent and often more negative.
That’s because suppression, in general, is a strategy that never works.
Running away from unpleasant or scary thoughts, feelings and behaviour also never works.
Brains that consistently avoid facing up to fearful and unpleasant feelings never learn to overcome the fear and awful anticipation. Every time they avoid the stressor, they become even more afraid of it and less confident that they will ever be able to face up to it. This circle becomes progressively negative, so people become increasingly isolated, scared to try, helpless and anxious.
Avoidance is a natural and functional response; think how often (without thinking) you avoid simple things such as moving from a cold to a hot shower (avoiding a cold sensation), not getting close to a hot stove (avoiding the possibility of being hurt), not saying what you think (avoiding the possibility of being criticized), drinking or smoking (avoiding stressful feelings).
If you apply avoidance strategies to many stressors in life that give you unpleasant thoughts and feelings, you will find (paradoxically) that you are becoming more stressed.
Here are some avoidance strategies that you might recognize:
- Avoiding certain people
- Avoiding conflict
- Avoiding some specific situations (e.g., giving presentations, meeting new people)
- Not asking for what you want (especially in relationships)
- Avoid certain things
- Avoiding communication
- Avoiding social situations
- Avoiding your feelings (not paying attention to them)
- Avoiding your thinking (not listening to what your head is saying)
- Using distraction activities to avoid (e.g., phones, social media)
- Using food, alcohol, or drugs to avoid painful thoughts and feelings
- Asking for reassurance to avoid painful feelings (calling your friends, partner, or mother)
- Ruminating and overthinking
When these avoidance strategies become deeply ingrained habits, you will find that anxious thoughts and feelings become stronger, not weaker.
Circle those behaviours you are likely to do and remember that these will eventually need to change.
Fighting (or taking control of) the stressor
If you want to fight the stressor, you will be active in trying to control and fix the unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and ideas you are experiencing. Again, this strategy can be very effective in the short term. You will feel a sense of agency and power and a feeling of being in control and thus experience temporary relief from the hurt and pain associated with these thoughts and feelings.
We know that this relief is temporary and that your feelings of being in control fade away in the long run.
If you stay in an uncomfortable situation (that you would prefer to avoid since it makes you anxious), your brain will begin to learn to tolerate a level of anxiety. Each time you ‘expose’ yourself to a scary event or situation, you will find that the discomfort and level of anxiety will slowly reduce (as your brain adapts).
Rather than taking control of the situation so that you will never feel anxiety, the goal is to subject yourself to a level of anxious feeling that teaches your brain to adapt.
Just like avoidance, fighting against what you think, feel, and behave is counterproductive. The payoff is even worse – the very things you are fighting against to subdue and to keep under control can become even stronger. You cannot fight your way out of this corner any more than you can fight your way out of quicksand.
If you apply fight (taking control) strategies to many stressors in life that give you unpleasant thoughts and feelings, you will find (paradoxically) that you are becoming more stressed.
Like the quicksand, the answer is to allow yourself to float with the feelings rather than fight them.
Here are some fight (taking control) strategies that you might recognize:
- Problem-solving (overthinking) when you are panicking
- Taking control by yelling, fighting, or arguing
- Setting up routines and rules and abiding strictly by these
- Needing to have rules, regulations, and systems for everything
- Becoming irritable (even angry) when your ‘rules’ or ‘expectations” are broken
- Wanting to win at all costs
- Refusing to pay attention to feelings inside of you
- Being hard, harsh, and self-critical (also with others)
- Being extreme in your thinking (things are either wonderful or disastrous)
- Being unable to adjust to changes, unpredictable happening and unplanned excursions
- Overthinking, analyzing, and needing reasons for everything
Remember, while you might typically fight or flight, you may sometimes flip between the two, depending on the context and the situation.
For example, you may be confident, proactive and social at work but quiet and avoidant in relationships. It’s normal for us to play different roles in different circumstances.
You may Freeze.
If you freeze, you will notice the blankness and inability to move, say anything coherent, or do anything constructive. You are just Stopped!
Some freeze states are momentary, and if you recognize them, you can quickly learn to soothe yourself and move out of it. Others can last for longer periods and may cause you to feel helpless. You may feel that you are simply unable to do anything, move away, or get out of that moment. Freeze states can be terrifying.
What earth can you do with such powerful bodily responses?
The first and most important task here is (after you have read about and understood what is happening in your brain) to calm your brain. After all, the reptilian brain is geared for survival and, in any FFF state, is acting as though this is the reality.
So, you must use your body to calm your brain. And the quickest and most effective way to do that is to use your breath. The simplest, most basic of all the things you do can bring the most powerful and terrifying moments into a calm space.
“The beauty of breathing is that it works even if you don’t believe it will.”1
Your breath is likely to become shallow and fast when you are in FFF (Fight, Flight or Freeze) – that’s because your body is getting you ready to fight or flee. If you can interrupt this moment and bring your body back to a calm and steady state, you will slow your heart rate and send messages to your brain that the danger is no longer there.
To begin with breathing – we use abdominal breathing – which means that when you breathe in, your tummy and chest expand and when you breathe out, your tummy and chest contract.
Here’s an excellent place to start – becoming aware of your breathing and learning to notice how it goes for you.
1Wehrenberg, M. (2008). The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques (pg 50).
Here’s a simple exercise to begin with:
Breathe awareness meditation
Use your breathing to:
- increase your awareness of how you feel
- become aware of how the breath feels in Your body
- how to modify the rate at which you breath
- bring you out of FFF into a calmer state
- To touch base with your body and you
- To learn to focus better on ONE thing
- To just be
- To keep out of your head and your thinking
- To build a baseline of calm, clear being
- To increase the oxygen into your cells and enliven you
- To be stronger and fitter
- To build a practice anywhere at anytime
Practice your breathing every day for the rest of your life.
Take one deep breath 5-10 times a day.
Breathe whenever you do something that you regularly do. For example, take one deep breath every time you have a coffee or sit down in a specific place.
Other good breathing spaces are:
- Waiting at the traffic light
- Waiting in queues
- Waiting for someone or something to happen
- Waiting for your computer or phone
Notice that your breathing baseline gives you a sense of calm over time – somewhere to go and somewhere to be when you feel overwhelmed.
There are many breathing exercises – choose one that you like and build it into your life.
Breathing will take you from the overwhelm to a quieter, calmer space.
Then and only then will you be able to decide what you want to do next.
When you are calm and able to think clearly, you begin to assemble information and ideas and plan what you will do.
Use your breathing to take you to where you need to be.
Of course, breathing will not be effective if you do not do this regularly and establish a baseline for yourself. Breathing is particularly ineffective if you breathe only when stressed or scared. If that happens, you will be training your brain to associate breathing with fear and automatic fight-flight-freeze responses (precisely what you don’t want).
For the first few weeks, make sure that you are breathing deeply and slowly, mostly at times when you are feeling relatively okay.
Notice that this is a simple technique with outcomes out of proportion (powerful results) to your level of effort. Nevertheless, it’s not easy to remember to do, especially if you are typically stressed, uptight and forget to schedule your breathing exercises.
When you are not in fight-flight-freeze modes, you will respond differently. You feel safe, and you will notice that you’re more inclined to play, nurture, mate, and work or be creative.
It’s essential to recognize the fight-flight-freeze responses that happen specifically for you. When you become aware of these reactions, you can use breathing techniques (and other strategies) to calm your brain.
A calm brain can access stored information more easily, remember better, respond more appropriately and make the most of any situation.
Know your brain better, understand what it is doing, support it in its efforts so you can find a calm, still mind.