Fight, Flight or Freeze Response to Stress

Boss confronting a SubordinateTHE FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE has got a new name. It's now called the fight, flight or freeze response. Stress experts around the world are adding the word freeze to the name in deference to the fact that instead of fighting or fleeing, sometimes we tend to freeze (like a deer in the headlights) in traumatic situations.

The fight or flight response (in its original form) is about survival. It's about hope. We activate it when we believe there's a chance we can outrun or outfight our attackers. The freeze response however, gets activated when's there's no hope.

In some respects, this response (whatever you call it) could be seen as an energy conservation device. It allowed our prehistoric ancestors to go through their day, using a modest amount of energy for mundane tasks while keeping a massive amount of energy, always on reserve, in case of emergency. If, while engaged in completing these mundane tasks, a predator were to jump out of the bushes, our ancestors would be able to – in a split second – dramatically increase their physical resources and instantly fight harder or run faster than they EVER had in their whole lives.

This response was very adaptive because it allowed our ancestors to change gears literally in the span of a single heartbeat. We can still do this today and call up this tremendous strength (the story about the woman who lifted a car off her son is NOT an urban legend) any time we need to and more importantly, turn it off when the danger passes.

I remember once when I was nine years old, I threw a water balloon at an older boy in the neighborhood. I hit him dead on and he didn't like it. He started chasing me and I was running for dear life. There was a four foot stone wall standing between me and the safety of my own backyard. I remember jumping clear over that wall even though it was about as tall as I was. That was the fight or flight response giving me the extra burst of energy I needed in an emergency.

The freeze response works differently. When we're overwhelmed by an attacker and we perceive that there is NO HOPE of surviving we tend to FREEZE. According to a story that was recently reported in the news media, a man who was visiting a national park out west actually survived a grizzly bear attack by playing dead. He sustained severe injuries during the attack but once he stopped struggling - the grizzly let him go. And it may have been what happens during the fight or flight or freeze response (which we'll discuss in minute) that allowed him to endure the pain and still manage to lie perfectly still.

The Autonomic Nervous System - image courtesy of
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
This graphic shows both the sympathetic branch which revs us up to fight or flee and the parasympathetic branch which calms us down to rest and digest. The parasympathetic branch also coordinates the freeze response.

In order to understand the fight or flight or freeze response you have to understand how the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (or ANS) work in harmony with each other to deal with the threats we face and then recover. Our ANS is a network of nerve fibers that extends throughout the body connecting the brain with various organs and muscle groups in order to coordinate the two branches of this response.

The sympathetic branch activates the fight or flight response. It tells the heart to beat faster, the muscles to tense, the eyes to dilate and the mucous membranes to dry up. All so you can fight harder, run faster, see better and breathe easier than you would without this response. And remember, this response kicks in for real threats and imagined ones in as little as 1/20th of a second: Less than the amount of time between two beats of the heart.

The parasympathetic branch activates the relaxation response. It tells the body, OK, you can relax now. The danger has passed. No need to be on alert anymore.

Woman yawning and stretchingWhenever we yawn, or stretch or feel our muscles relaxing after a workout, this is the work of the parasympathetic branch. We may not know it, but when we turn the lights out at night, we are depending on the parasympathetic branch to allow us to sleep. Interestingly, the same neurotransmitters, hormones and pain killers that help the body relax are also dumped into the bloodstream in huge amounts when the freeze array of the response kicks in. (And it's the pain killers that allow us to lie still while being mortally wounded.)

According to psychiatrist, author and UCLA professor Daniel J. Siegel, M.D, "researchers call this the dorsal dive referring to the portion of the parasympathetic nervous system that has been activated. This response…is thought to have real benefits for an animal that is cornered by a predator. Collapse simulates death, so an attacker that eats only live prey may lose interest. Blood pressure drops precipitously in a freeze state which could also reduce blood loss from wounds. In any case, it makes the animal or person fall limply to the ground as they faint, which maintains precious blood flow to the head."

When author Dr. Peter Levine, gives lectures on surviving trauma, he shows a video of a lion chasing a baby gazelle. He is trying to show the audience exactly how the freeze response works. He explains that the video is short because the average time for a lion attack from start to finish is about 45 seconds. So he makes the additional (and very important) point that this is how long the victim's stress response (and our stress response) was designed to be activated for: Not hours or days, or even weeks on end like it does in us chronically stressed humans who don't know how to turn it off.

Of course the lion catches up to the gazelle (in less than 45 seconds) and you watch as it ruthlessly sinks its teeth into the baby animal's neck and throws it down on the ground several times, making sure it's completely lifeless. It's a game over moment if there ever was one. Then something miraculous happens. When the lion walks away, presumably to bring its cubs back to the kill, the gazelle literally comes back to life. It's as if it is waking from a deep freeze. You see it shiver all over and then it stands up and runs away, making a clean break.

For human beings, the freeze response can occur when we're terrified and feel like there is no chance for our survival or no chance for escape. It happens in car accidents, to rape victims and to people who are robbed at gunpoint. Sometimes they pass out, freeze or mentally remove themselves from their bodies, and don't feel the pain of the attack, and sometimes have no (explicit) memory of it afterwards.

That's why the fight or flight response is now called the fight, flight or freeze response. Because sometimes, when the odds are overwhelming we neither fight nor flee but simply freeze. And knowing this has special meaning in the treatment of trauma patients who, as survivors of a freeze event, experience flashbacks and other (implicit) memory fragments that can continue to haunt them for years afterwards. We'll talk about that aspect of the fight, flight or freeze response in a future article.

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Book Spotlight

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
By: Robert M. Sapolsky

Cover of the book Why Zebras Don't Get UlcersHow stress affects sleep and addiction, as well as new insights into anxiety and personality disorder and the impact of spirituality on managing stress. As Sapolsky explains, most of us do not lie awake at night worrying about whether we have leprosy or malaria. Instead, the diseases we fear-and the ones that plague us now-are illnesses brought on by the slow accumulation of damage, such as heart disease and cancer. When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal's does, but we do not resolve conflict in the same way-through fighting or fleeing. Over time, this activation of a stress response makes us literally sick. Combining cutting-edge research with a healthy dose of good humor and practical advice, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers explains how prolonged stress causes or intensifies a range of physical and mental afflictions, including depression, ulcers, colitis, heart disease, and more. It also provides essential guidance to controlling our stress responses. This new edition promises to be the most comprehensive and engaging one yet.