A term coined by Dr Walter Cannon in the 1920’s – it is our genetically programmed, instinctive and primal response to threats – be they actual or a perceived – whichever; our body initiates the same response; Fight, flight or freeze.
We do not have to learn these responses. They are hard-wired to protect us; to keep us alive.
This primal response mobilises the mind and body, enhancing its ability to respond more advantageously to a threat or attack and offers many benefits in such an event, such as;
It puts us in our best possible shape to either run away from threat - flight - or to hit the threat head on - fight. This is why, when you feel stress, you often want to run/escape from the place you feel threatened (flight) and why anger is common (fight).
We may also freeze. A common, yet oft overlooked response in the face of stressful situations, especially acute ones.
The extreme version of this can include freezing to the spot or fainting when we are faced with a threat or stressful situation (think of the kind of reaction you often see in horror movies!) that can overwhelm our abilities to cope and/or literally paralyze us with fear.
Or, a more common everyday way in which freeze manifests itself is in behaviour such as denial; pretending it didn’t happen, not reacting initially at someone/something and hoping you were wrong (‘did they just say what they just said to me?’) and in those ‘one off’ occasions, this can often be argued as the right response to adopt, but the inherent danger with this in some situations (work colleagues being a good example) it can then manifest in a hope that it didn’t happen and it will not happen again; everything will all be okay next time – invariably it isn’t!
The physiology of fight, flight or freeze
When our senses are alerted to danger or a threat (actual or perceived) the stress response is triggered in our brain, causing a rapid, complex chain of events; over 30 stress hormones are released, which in turn causes around 1400 physiological and biochemical changes to occur within the body; all within seconds.
The Locus Coeruleus, a nucleus in the brain stem, instigates the stress alert by increasing norepinephrine secretion. Dopamine is released, exciting different parts of the brain. Cognitive function and motivation escalate. The brain becomes highly aroused and ready for action.
Then comes the stress response, a great deal of which is carried out by the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis.
When norepinephrine reaches the Hypothalmus, it signals the pituitary gland, which in turn signals the adrenal glands to release cortisol and androgens.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds even faster. Norepinephrine signals the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to increase activity and sends signals down the spinal cord to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. At the same time, Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) activity decreases.
Metabolism accelerates, breathing and heart rate increases, blood pressure goes up. Blood is re-routed from the internal organs and blood-flow increases to the skeletal muscles. Glucose is released into the blood stream further fuelling the muscles for fight or flight.
Pupils dilate, sharpening our vision; our senses go into overdrive, increasing our awareness; our perception of pain is diminished in readiness for the attack.
This is the classic fight, flight or freeze mechanism at work
The problem with fight/flight or freeze is that it works best when we face a clear physical threat.
A good (albeit extreme) example of this is soldiers preparing to go into battle; fight/flight will switch on to some degree in everyone about to make contact with the enemy. However, there are many downsides to the stress response if it is not kept under control, and this is where military selection, training and discipline step in.
Fight/flight is dealt with by the part of the brain that deals with emotion; the Limbic system. This part of the brain sees no difference between an actual physical threat; e.g. a violent attack, for example, OR a perceived threat; such as worrying about being late for an interview.
All involve threat. All invoke fear – to a greater or lesser degree. But the response is the same – the Fight/Flight/Freeze response is switched on.
This is simply a binary yes-no thing – think of a smoke alarm – it cannot tell the difference between smoke from your toaster or smoke from actual fire threatening to burn you and the house down – smoke is smoke; it reacts just the same for both.
Similarly, to the Limbic system; a threat is a threat.
So, in both cases your body primes you to fight, freeze or flee. This can help soldiers in combat, or someone about to be violently attacked, for example – but in the case of a perceived or everyday ‘threat’; relationships, difficult work colleagues, a meeting descending into an argument, these changes in your body and mind can be potentially highly counter-productive.
When this primal, emotional response kicks in, there are some key downsides that manifest as a consequence;
In the classic context of surviving a vicious physical attack, then arguably the positives mentioned outweigh the negatives.
But in the context of our everyday work and personal lives – the above effects are almost always negative – unhelpful, counter-productive, with the potential to exacerbate the situation and make it much worse.
In such situations; do we really want or need our primitive and irrational survival mechanism to kick in? Does it really help us?
Another key detriment of the stress response is that it is designed as a short-term solution to what should be an occasional, even a rare, problem.
We either fight the threat and destroy it, or evade the threat by running away from it. And once the threat is no more, our minds and bodies return back to a normal, steady state.
But in our modern world and the ever-increasing frequency of demands, problems and ‘threats’ – traffic, commutes, deadlines, workloads, career instability, financial pressures, relationship problems, long hours; on and on it goes – our stress response mechanism may never fully switch off, routinely being at a heightened state of alert for prolonged periods of time and rarely coming down to a calm level.
In these modern times, situations that evoke the stress response require neither the fight, flight or freeze response to kick in. They simply cannot be resolved by fighting, freezing to the spot or running away.
Nevertheless, the triggering of the stress response is inevitable as it is genetically programmed to do so.
This is highly counter-intuitive, as often it does not speed us towards a resolution. Deprived of a short-term result, and then facing one ‘threat’ after another sees the very system designed to protect us begin to cause wear and tear on our bodies.
To break this cycle, we need to both recognise and understand the signs and symptoms as well as learn methods to control our stress response.
Cannon, W.B., (1927) Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage [Kindle Edition] Cannon Press: New York
Shah, N., (2012) The 10-step stress solution Vermillion Press: London
Clayton, M., (2011) Brilliant stress management Pearson Publishing: Harlow
Chek, P., (2004) Eat, move and be healthy! C.H.E.C.K. Institute: San Diego
Macdonald, M., (2013) Energy is everything Amazon.co.uk Ltd: Marston Gate
McEwan, B., (2012) The end of stress as we know it [Kindle Edition] Dana Press: New York
Harvard Health Publications (2016) Understanding the Stress Response [online] 18th March, at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
Dr Neil, M.D.; What is the “fight or flight” response? [online] at: http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html
Seltzer, L.F., (2015) Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both? [online] in Psychology Today; 8th July, at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both
Schmidt, N.B., (2008) Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor [online] in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry; 12th August, Vol.39, Iss.3, p.292-304, at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204/