Counseling Center

Fight / Flight / Freeze Response

Okay, so how can we increase exposure and get off the anxiety-avoidance roller coaster? First, we need to understand what’s going for you when you experience anxiety. Let's start by talking about what's going on in your body when you experience stress or anxiety.

A big part of anxiety has to do with our physiological responses to stressors. Some of you may have heard of the fight, flight, or freeze response. That’s what we are talking about here.  Essentially, the most primitive part of our brain (our amygdala) has an evolutionary basis in protecting us from danger. This is a good thing!

Our amygdala is our body’s anxiety switch. When we as early humans were living in the wilderness and needed protection from danger such as animals and/or other predators, this part of our brain adapted and switched on to help us to either fight the predator or flee from the situation. Fighting or fleeing (aka avoidance) was our brain’s adaptive response to danger.

Researchers later acknowledged that in addition to fighting or fleeing, we may also respond by freezing when we perceive danger. It’s not as commonly discussed, but it’s also an adaptive response. The freeze response is more of an automatic shut down in functioning, like a deer caught in headlights.

Let’s think about this. If you were hiking, confronted by a dangerous animal, and the amygdala (the anxiety switch) switched on, what might you feel happening in your body?

Click here to learn more about this. Take a look at the symptoms listed. Put a check mark next to the ones you have experienced.

These are the fight or flight responses triggered by our amygdala. These responses saved us from danger as early humans and they save us from danger today. So, they are very helpful and adaptive when it comes to life-threatening situations. 

But typically, the threats that we face today, that trigger the physiological responses, are not life threatening. Right? When was the last time you had to escape from a dangerous animal?

So the threats are different but our brains react just like they did when we were early humans dealing with life-threatening situations. The fight, flight, or freeze system is getting mis-triggered because our brains are not distinguishing between life threatening and non-life threatening stressors. It’s like a false alarm that is constantly going off. Our amygdala gets stuck in the “on” mode, so we run away from or fight danger all day long and tire ourselves out!

Further, the amygdala learns that this level of arousal and anxiety, this constant “on” mode, is the new norm and the amygdala adapts and adopts this new elevated level of anxiety for your body. This may be why you feel anxious all the time.

So the fight, flight, or freeze response triggered by the amygdala contributes to physiological symptoms of anxiety. These physiological symptoms are one of the uncomfortable things that we avoid when we avoid anxiety-provoking situations.

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Last Updated: 11/9/21