Fight Flight Freeze – What Is It?
Fight or Flight or Freeze are nervous system responses to trauma and/or stressful situations. Our bodies have an automatic response to stress in attempts to try and cope with the situation or trauma at hand. All nervous system responses are an attempt to keep us alive.
What do the different responses look like?
Fight – Fighting is a little more self-explanatory than the others but fighting is an attempt to engage with others or the world around you to try and defend and keep yourself alive.
Nature example: An animal attacking a predator back that attacks them
Modern example: Fighting with a loved one to try and resolve the conflict
Flight – Leaving a situation to protect yourself
Nature example: Seeing a predator heading for you and running away as fast as possible
Modern example: Having a loved one coming to you with conflict and needing to escape, go outside, or literally run
Freeze – Feeling unable to move and/or speak
Nature example: A mouse sees a predator and freezes in hopes that the predator will not see them because they are not moving
Modern example: A loved one coming to you with a problem and feeling like you cannot speak, move, or respond
A different opinion on freeze
As opposed to freeze being on the same level as flight or fight, some people believe that freeze can be a step above fight and flight as shown in this graph adapted by Ruby Jo Walker from Cheryl Sanders, Anthony “Twig” Wheeler, and Steven Porges found on How to Map Your Own Nervous System by The Movement Paradigm written by Arianne Missimer.
In this article, freeze is a level above the fight or flight response. Flight or fight means that the body and nervous system still feel capable to engage and do something about the trauma, “I can,” whereas in freeze the body is no longer feeling capable and is preparing for death, “I can’t.
In the different responses of the body, the green zone shows our bodies working in the ways our parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to work. In the yellow, our bodies start to become elevated with an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline along with many other symptoms. In the red, our body is preparing for possible death and starting to conserve energy and shut down our body by decreasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline.
Why do our bodies do this?
All responses originally had a purpose in the wild of keeping us alive and that can be why sometimes these responses do not always serve us in our modern world.
Nowadays, it is not always helpful to freeze when our boss asks us a question or to run away in the middle of an argument. But our bodies are trying to protect us from trauma and danger. Understanding that these responses are natural can be the first step. Once we know that our bodies are doing this to protect us, it may be easier to experience the response and be able to learn from it. Animals have a natural way of dealing with the responses either by fully completing the nervous system responses or by shaking. Where we can get stuck is that we do not normally rid our bodies of trauma like animals do, and that’s where therapy can help.
Written By: Abby Matt, LPCC
Missimer, A. (2020, March 22). How to Map Your Own Nervous System: The Polyvagal Theory. The Movement Paradigm. https://themovementparadigm.com/how-to-map-your-own-nervous-sytem-the-polyvagal-theory/