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Fight, flight and freeze

Most of us have heard of the terms fight, flight and freeze, but exactly how do these states relate to how humans feel? This is the first of a series of blogs about how understanding how our nervous system works can be a powerful step towards managing our feelings and controlling our thoughts and behaviours.

Why? Why? Why?

When people come to counselling, they are often puzzled at some of their feelings and behaviours. We can sometimes feel hijacked by strong emotions and intrusive thoughts that go round and round in our heads. Why do I feel so anxious when I have to do a presentation at work? Why do I feel intense anger and take it personally when someone cuts me off in traffic? Why do I always leave a relationship as soon as it starts to get “serious”? Why is my sleeping pattern disturbed? Why do I feel so miserable and depressed? Why do I have a fear of confined spaces? Or a need to double check that I turned off the lights and locked the front door? 

It isn’t just our brain that controls our behaviour and how we feel and think – the whole nervous system is the major controlling, regulatory, and communicating system in our body.  

So very often, having some basic understanding of our nervous system can help us to understand and so to manage strong emotions like anxiety, fear, panic and anger, OCD and phobias, even trauma and PTSD. 

The nervous system – some simple facts

The central nervous system is made up of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system is made up of the somatic and the autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system is the part of the peripheral nervous system associated with the voluntary control of body movements via skeletal muscles. 

Our autonomic nervous system (the involuntary system that helps to control things like our breathing, heart rate, digestion, and salivation) is complex and always busy. In addition to running these important functions in our bodies such as helping us breathe, helping our heart pump, and helping us digest food, our autonomic nervous system is also helping us to scan, interpret, and respond to danger cues. The autonomic nervous system has two branches – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems:

  • Sympathetic nervous system

This system is involved in arousing our bodies to respond by mobilising us to move when in dangerous situations. This is often called “fight or flight”  – our reactions to danger cues in our environment. It is also responsible for activating our adrenal glands to release adrenaline into our bloodstream. When we see (or think we see) a snake, our sympathetic nervous system will read the cue of the potential threat and prompt our body to respond, likely involving a quick adrenaline rush and us immediately moving away from the snake.

  • Parasympathetic nervous system

This system is involved in calming our bodies and conserving energy.  It slows our heart rate, regulates our digestion and lowers our blood pressure. It’s often called the “rest and digest” system. As we begin to read that a cue is not dangerous, our body begins to calm with the help of our parasympathetic nervous system.

Scanning our Environment

From the time we are born, we are intuitively scanning our environment for cues of safety and danger. We are wired for connection and, in order to help us survive, our bodies are designed and prepared for observing, processing, and responding to our environment, especially to signals from the people around us. From babyhood to adulthood, we continually (and largely unconsciously or subconsciously) scan our environment for cues of safety and danger. 

The results of our scanning (predominantly using our ears and our eyes) is fed directly to our nervous system. There are three basic nervous system states:

  •  “Fight or Flight” state

This response is our survival strategy and is the response of our sympathetic nervous system. If you were going to run from a hungry lion, for example, you want this response to save your life. When we have a fight response, we can have anger, rage, irritation, and frustration. If we are having a flight response, we can have anxiety, worry, fear, and panic. Physiologically, our blood pressure, heart rate, and adrenaline increase and it decreases digestion, pain threshold, and immune responses.

  •  “Rest and Digest” state

This is a response of our parasympathetic system. It is also known as ventral vagal. In this state we feel safe, grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, and compassionate. This is the state of social engagement, where we are connected to ourselves and the world. Physiologically, digestion, resistance to infection, circulation, immune responses, and our ability to connect is improved.

  •  “Freeze” state

Although most people today are well aware of the term “fight or flight”, the freeze state is much less widely known about even though it is responsible for many of our behaviour patterns throughout our life. 

The freeze response involves both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Freeze is our dorsal vagal state, our most primitive pattern, and our emergency state. While fight and flight is all about action, freeze is a lack of reaction. This means that we are completely shut down, we can feel hopeless and feel like there’s no way out. We tend to feel depressed, conserve energy, dissociate, feel overwhelmed, and feel like we can’t move forward. Physiologically, our fuel storage and insulin activity increases and our pain thresholds increase so if wounded we feel less pain. My next blog will focus on the freeze state. 

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Trauma and the bodyGroundingAll You Need to Know about Stress


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