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Fight, Flight, or Freeze: Exploring our Stress Responses

Updated: Dec 24, 2021

I’m sure we’ve all heard of the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Maybe you’ve even discovered what your default response to feeling threatened is.

If you often find yourself getting angry, loud, and argumentative it’s most likely that your default response is “fight.” If you encountered a lion in the wild you’d try to take that 400 lb fella down with your bare hands (you may not succeed, but hey… at least you tried).

If you’re someone that tries to avoid conflict and sweep the negativity under the rug it’s most likely that your default response is “flight.” If you saw that wild lion, you’d run like Forrest and hope that you just happened to be fast that day.

And lastly, if you’re someone that doesn’t say anything, but also doesn’t try to escape it’s most likely that your default response is “freeze.” You’re the one to act like a statue and pray that the lion doesn’t think you’re tasty.

But why are these three options the main defaults for the majority of people? Is one better than the others? Can you train yourself within your default response to make it more acceptable?

Exploring the history of fight, flight, or freeze

Fight, flight, or freeze are physiological reactions that occur when you feel threatened. When we encounter threatening stimuli our sympathetic nervous system is triggered, causing a stress response. This response prepares the body to fight, flight, or freeze. These three core actions are evolutionary adaptations that have helped us with survival over the years.

If you think about these physiological reactions from a historical perspective you will see why these responses were so important. When walking through a forest and you hear a bear creeping through the woods our ancestors would need to be able to respond quickly in order to increase their chances of survival. Some would run as fast as they could, others would take out their spears and fight, while others may have frozen to show that they aren’t a threat.

What’s interesting is that these responses haven’t changed much over the years, even though the threats have changed dramatically.

Most of us aren’t being threatened by wild animals on a daily basis these days. Instead, we’re dealing with traffic jams, annoying coworkers, and holiday drama.

And yet, you’ll still be able to see a pattern in your own responses to these stressors.

What happens to your body?

I mentioned above that when you perceive a stimulus as threatening your sympathetic nervous system is triggered. But what does this actually mean for your body?

Triggering your sympathetic nervous system means that you’re essentially preparing for action. Your heart rate is increasing, more blood is flowing to your muscles, and an influx of hormones are preparing you to react.

But is there a thing as reacting too often?

In a lot of cases, our natural responses of fight, flight, or freeze are triggered many times throughout the day which can lead to increased anxiety and higher levels of anger.

When you’re constantly perceiving everything as a threat, your body is continuously on high alert causing you to be anxious, impatient, and react without thinking since your body is in survival mode.

Can you change your responses?

Most researchers say that it’s pretty difficult to change your body’s natural response to stress. Everyone’s default stress response varies, and since it is such an automatic process it can be a pretty hard thing to control.

However, no matter what your go-to response is, something that can be helpful is working on going into survival mode less.

If you’re constantly angry or constantly anxious it may mean that you’re perceiving multiple events as stressful throughout your day.

This continuous uptick in your stress hormone Cortisol causes you to be on edge which can lead to a whole series of negative outcomes.

Are you yelling at your children more than you want to? Or maybe you’re getting more frustrated during traffic jams? Do you get nervous when walking into work? Are you fighting with your spouse more than usual?

Of course you don’t want to undermine negative events in your life, but you can work on being able to adapt to these events better. When you’re able to “go with the flow” of life, your physiological response will err on the side of relaxed rather than on edge.

This is obviously a difficult process and isn’t something that will happen overnight, but in order to get out of survival mode it may be beneficial.

So what are some things you can actually do?

Tips for getting out of survival mode

The following suggestions are going to seem extremely simple, but it’s often the simple things in life that can bring you the greatest reward. Unfortunately, it’s also the simple things that are the easiest to ignore.

  1. Exercise on a regular basis

  2. Try deep breathing exercises

  3. Attempt a yoga class (YouTube yoga definitely counts)

  4. Walk in nature frequently

  5. Reduce caffeine intake

  6. Cuddle

  7. Have a regular gratitude practice (writing it down may be helpful)

  8. Spend time with friends and family

Although it’s difficult to change our body’s natural physiological responses of fight, flight, or freeze, we can still attempt to reduce the amount of times we enter into survival mode.

Try to make weekly or daily habits out of a few of the suggestions above for the next month and see how your body responds.

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