Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR Practitioner

Imagine living in a world where you might be killed by a carnivorous wild animal at any moment. Only people who are hyperaware of danger and able to act quickly are likely to survive. This was the life lived by all our ancestors long ago, and they survived with the help of their primitive automatic responses to fear— to run away, to counterattack, to keep very still and escape notice. As human society has changed, so have the threats—it’s now rare to come across a wild animal stalking you in the streets. Yet we continue to experience the same responses to fear.

Primitive fear responses fall into three categories: fight, flight, and freeze. These instincts can be helpful when you encounter threats to your physical wellbeing, but they can be detrimental when you’re not facing serious threats.

Suppose that you have three coworkers who are afraid of public speaking and they’re each required to give a ten-minute presentation at a business meeting. How might they express their fright? Maybe one of your coworkers turns red and yells at someone who’s talking in the audience. Another walks out in the middle of the presentation without an explanation. The third abruptly stops in midsentence and stands silently staring into the audience, unable to continue. These are examples of fight, flight, and freeze reactions. Scary as it may be, public speaking isn’t life-threatening—but the brains of your hypothetical coworkers can’t tell the difference.

The amygdala, a small part of the brain, plays a key role in fear responses. Dr. Ahmad Hariri of Duke University states that the amygdala gets you amped up to react before the rest of your brain can determine if what it’s sensing is an actual threat. If a friend jumps out from around a corner with the intent to scare you, you might automatically react by jumping away, temporarily being unable to move, or lunging at them. The threat isn’t real, but your brain doesn’t know that right away.

It’s important to identify which fear responses you typically express so you can understand your behaviors and return to a calm state more easily. Some people gravitate toward one type of response or some combination. Here are a few signs of the classic fight, flight, and freeze responses that you might experience when you’re exposed to a possible threat.

Fight:

  • You broaden your shoulders, widen your stance, or ball your hands into fists.
  • Your breathing speeds up.
  • You feel angry or enraged.
  • You may want to express verbal or physical aggression—to yell or hit something, for example.
  • You may even impulsively express verbal or physical aggression.

Flight:

  • You fold your arms across your chest, close in your posture to appear smaller, or draw your knees toward your chest, resembling a fetal position.
  • Your breathing grows shallow.
  • You feel trapped.
  • Your legs or feet are restless and you feel a need to move around.
  • You may abruptly leave the environment or end a conversation.

Freeze:

  • Your body feels stiff, heavy, numb, or paralyzed.
  • You find yourself holding your breath, or your lungs feel tight or restricted.
  • Your mind goes blank; you cannot focus or think clearly.
  • You cannot speak or don’t know what to say.
  • In extreme cases, you may experience disorientation or fainting.

Which responses do you experience? Once you know what signs to look for, you’ll be in a better position to manage them and calm yourself. There are many interventions to manage fear reactions. Do you need help managing your responses to fear? Meeting with a therapist could be beneficial. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 today to schedule an appointment.

Murphy, K. (2017, October 25) Outsmarting Our Primitive Responses to Fear [Blog post] Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/well/live/fear-anxiety-therapy.html

Trauma Recovery/Fight, Flight, Freeze Responses. Retrieved from http://trauma-recovery.ca/impact-effects-of-trauma/fight-flight-freeze-responses/