Anxiety is something we all experience in some form or another. Sometimes, that anxiety can snowball into the Fight-Flight-Freeze response when faced with very stressful situations.
It’s a sort of unavoidable side effect of living – tests, first dates, starting new chapters. These are all things that naturally cause even the best of us a little anxiety at times. Unfortunately for some of us, this anxiety extends beyond the normal realm and into the inconvenient territory.
I speak from first-hand, long-term experience when I say that anxiety can easily descend into chaos. It can become the Fight-Flight-Freeze response in the face of situations much less stressful than dates and exams.
The response is simply a reaction that takes place inside your body when your body perceives a threat. Though it was evolved to keep us safe from life-threatening dangers, these days, the reaction is set off by anything which causes us stress or fear, from spiders to public speaking, to small spaces or rollercoasters.
What Is the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response?
Also known as the Fight or Flight Response, the Fight-Flight-Freeze response is the body’s automatic reaction to dangerous situations and has existed since the earliest humans walked the Earth. When we face life-threatening danger, our body deploys this method to help us return to safety quickly, without having to think about it.
Back in the days of cavemen, this process was essential for survival. These days, the Fight-Flight-Freeze response tends to just be distressing and incredibly unhelpful in the face of modern stress. You see, we don’t come up against the kind of dangers that our Neanderthal ancestors would have any more.
We aren’t being chased by sabretooth tigers all that often and we don’t need to defend our lives from the possibility of death on a daily basis. We still react in such a powerful way to our most intense stresses though, unfortunately, these stresses don’t require the kind of biological reactions that the fight-flight-freeze response creates.
This means our bodies are flooded with unnecessary and unused chemicals, which just leaves us feeling uncomfortable.
What Does the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response Do?
In the face of a vicious, hungry, predator, a caveman would have to decide what to do to find safety again. This thought process is automatic. So before you have time to weigh up the options, your body starts getting you ready for battle. In a life-threatening situation, taking time to consider the options is not a good idea.
The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response is powered by adrenaline and does exactly what it says on the tin. It helps you to fight the danger, flee from it, or unfortunately, sometimes causes you to freeze.
These solutions are the best chance of survival when you face real, physical danger. But they are all somewhat useless when our sophisticated and modern society is never all that dangerous at all.
What Does the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response Do to Your Body?
For several years now, my own body has been charged with adrenaline an awful lot. It is truly incredible how much of your body can be affected by the Fight-Flight-Freeze response, from the minor frights to the full-blown panic attacks.
Have you ever been in a close call car incident, or had your friends jump out at you in a prank? That short-lived pounding feeling in your heart is an effect of the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response which was set off when your brain noticed that you were suddenly scared.
It tends to fade away quickly and leave you feeling just fine. What about the times you’ve had to make a speech or do a presentation in front of a crowd? You might feel sweaty, nauseous, or like you really urgently need to use the bathroom.
These are all feelings that result from the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response because these situations are our modern version of life-threatening danger. There’s a biological reason for each of these symptoms and the hundreds of other bizarre and unpleasant feelings that come with the Fight-Flight-Freeze response and general anxiety.
- Heart Racing/Shortness of Breath – When your body is preparing to run or fight, it needs more oxygen for the muscles. You get this oxygen by breathing faster and your heart pumps it faster around the body.
- Nausea/Feeling Sick – When your body thinks it needs to fight or flee, it shuts down the digestive system to save the energy for whatever other actions it might need to do.
- Needing to use the bathroom – In order to fight a monster or run away, your body needs to be as light as possible to help you travel faster. To achieve this, your body wants to evacuate your bladder and your bowels, much to your distress.
How Does It Work?
When you’re in a stressful situation, your subconscious mind sees this as being threatened. Your mind, as intelligent as it is, can’t really tell the difference between little anxiety at times. So it deploys the same life-saving biological reactions every time.
The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response works like a ball you throw into the air. Your anxiety grows stronger as time goes by. It happens either because the situation is becoming more and more stressful or because of over-thinking. So your body’s response gets more and more heightened – but rest assured, it has to come back down eventually.
When the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response peaks, usually because your body is being flooded with adrenaline that isn’t being used up by fighting or fleeing, this is called a Panic Attack.
These horrible intense feelings only last a few moments though. Then, your body will start to break down the chemicals and you’ll return to feeling calmer again.
Anxiety is Rough
Panic Attacks and the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response’s effects on your body are even rougher. Our bodies are incredible and able to withstand all sorts. In the hardest moments, remember that the response is designed for one thing and one thing only – to keep you alive, no matter the stress or the situation.