The ‘Fight, Flight & Freeze’ Response
What is the “fight flight & freeze response?”
This is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to fight, or flee or freeze from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.
What happens to us when we are under excessive stress?
When we experience excessive stress—whether from internal worry or external circumstances—a bodily reaction is triggered, called the “fight or flight” response. Originally discovered by the great Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, this response is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm. This response actually corresponds to an area of our brain called the hypothalamus, which—when stimulated—initiates a sequence of nerve cells firing and chemical release that prepares our body for running or fighting.
What are the signs that our fight or flight response has been stimulated (activated)?
When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cells fire and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cells firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases, blood is shunted away from our digestive tract then directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight. We scan and search our environment, “looking for the enemy.”
When our fight or flight system is activated, we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind—where our more well thought out beliefs exist—and moves us into “attack” mode. This state of alert causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival. As such, we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. We may overreact to the slightest comment. Our fear is exaggerated. Our thinking is distorted. We see everything through the filter of possible danger. We narrow our focus to those things that can harm us.
Fear becomes the lens through which we see the world.
The Unconscious Motivation: Survival
The Prime Directive: Keep you safe
The Flight Fight or Freeze Response
Fear of social death (perceived danger) or real physical danger, will trigger the ancient brain to keep you safe, initiating the flight or fight response. This is the “fight flight or freeze response or as Dan Goleman calls it “The Hijacking of the Amygdala.” When we experience performance stress—whether from internal worry or external circumstance—a bodily reaction is triggered.
To minimize the damage from hijacking, it is important to practice patterns, which lead to de-escalation. From that hijacked state, that condition where your brain is flooded with electro-chemicals, you still have options. You do not need to stay hijacked — you still can choose actions. After all, the chemicals do not persist — they will dissipate in three to six seconds.
This technique consists of taking three slow breaths to slow things down. Count silently and slowly to three when you breathe in (through your nose and push your stomach out rather than your chest. This allows you to breathe with your diaphragm and to get a deeper breath.
Breathe out on a slow count of six – through your mouth. The rhythm goes like this:
Breathe in …….. Breathe out……..Breathe in …….. Breathe out……..
Repeat two more times
Be sure that you pace your breath so that you have some breath left by the time you get to six. If you feel light-headed, then just slow it down a bit. Practice this each time you are aware of ‘stress’ and eventually it will kick in automatically when you have a stressful situation. This simple technique can slow and even stop the fight-or-flight response.