Flight, Fight or Freeze Reaction
From meetings with a frustrated boss to walks along a dark street, contemporary life is filled with stressful situations. Equipped with a response system fashioned by primitive ancestors, modern humans react in three general ways when physical and emotional threats are near: Flight, Fight, or Freeze.
Whether we choose flight, fight, or freeze depends on a number of variables. Violent and traumatic episodes early in life, along with birth order, influence what an individual selects and ultimately relies on when encountering, and even anticipating, an uncomfortable experience. For some individuals, their responses are so extreme that they are unable to fully function in social and/or work environments.
The field of psychotherapy seeks to understand a person’s predisposition to fight, fight, or freeze by assessing the individual’s experiences growing up and their adult emotional state. Within psychotherapy, the three reactions are generally understood in the following ways (though the three often blend):
Response characteristics include restless legs, feet /numbness in legs, anxious and shallow breathing, and a noticeable fidgety-ness.
Individuals who respond with flight have an unconscious belief that the relentless pursuit of personal perfection will guarantee their safety. As children, they managed trauma within their homes by being either a high-performing “A” student or an at-risk drop out. They relentlessly flee the inner pain of their abandonment and lack of attachment by being constantly busy. Flight types are prone to becoming addicted to their own rush of doing something all of the time, often finding comfort when fleeing into work. They may engage in risky and dangerous activities to keep their adrenalin-high going, and those with severe trauma may succumb to extreme anxiety and panic disorders.
Response characteristics include crying, tight or flexed jaw, and feelings of anger or rage.
Fight types believe that personal power and control create their safety and assures them affection. Adults who grew up as spoiled children or modeled a bullying parent are likely candidates for responding to stress with rage; forcing others to imitate their anger is also a component of their fight response. They put others, such as spouses or children, in the role of an audience forced to listen to their grievances or even into a dominant-submissive relationship, especially if the individual is a freeze type (more below). Severe fight types may become sociopathic, as personified by a corrupt politician and violent criminal.
Response characteristics include holding or restricting breath, sense of stiffness, and a pounding heart.
Safety lies in solitude. That’s the core belief for individuals who choose to freeze when a perceived or real threat is close. Hiding from human contact as much as possible, this type disconnects from experiencing any abandonment pain and focuses on daydreaming, video gaming, and other activities that allow them to tune out any challenging experiences. Individuals with severe trauma and how chose the flee response may completely detach from reality.
An individual whose flight, fight, or freeze responses prevent them from fully engaging in normal social activities and professional environments can seek assistance from a registered psychotherapist.
Assessment and on-going treatment are part of the path towards recovery.