Fight, Flight, or Freeze – Understanding the Three Responses to Anxiety

The anxiety disorders that we suffer with as a society today are a mutation of the primitive mechanism that once helped us to survive. Our nervous system is structured for attending to sudden, short-term danger that we would respond to by either running away, fighting for our lives, or freezing and camouflaging ourselves from predators. Unfortunately our society and technologies have far surpassed our biological evolution at this point. Our old ways of dealing with the original stressors we faced in nature are no longer translatable to modern problems.

Despite our problems being more long-term and complex, our nervous system’s response still manifests itself in similar forms to address stress. It is not always easily recognizable as what most of us think of as anxiety. I believe we still have the instinct for fight, flight, or freeze, it just looks quite different now than it did for our ancestors. I believe a lot of the behavior exhibited by people today is in fact due to anxiety.

Flight

Our flight response is what I believe most people mainly associate with the modern expression of anxiety. While we may not actually run away, this is the sensation we are used to describing as anxiety. It is easy for me to identify this inner urge to get away from the situation. This is the only mental state that I attributed to my anxiety disorder for the majority of my life. However, recently I’ve discovered that a lot of my other behavior can also be traced back to my nervous, unstable mental state.

Fight

I have struggled with anger since my teenage years. I never really considered that it had anything to do with my mental illness though. I felt that it was just a part of my personality or temperament. I’ve come to realize that, in fact, it is my anxiety that makes me so quick to anger. I had heard that underneath anger, there is often fear, but even then I didn’t make the connection. While anger may not always be a reaction to anxiety, I feel mine usually is. Understanding this has allowed me to be much more compassionate with myself when I become angry, as well as have more sympathy for others when they exhibit this violent emotion. When we know that anger is coming from a place of fear, it shifts our response to it immensely.

Freeze

This is another possible reaction to anxiety that I’ve only recently identified. Most people attribute procrastination to laziness or simply not caring. I suppose it can certainly stem from these things, but I believe now that it is primarily another carry-over of our nervous system’s primitive reactions to stress. If we can’t used our increased adrenaline to run away or fight, we freeze, or in other words try to avoid the problem or dangerous encounter. Unfortunately, avoiding a midterm paper won’t result in the deadline disappearing or going away like a predator that hasn’t spotted us would have.


I’m not suggesting that these behaviors are justified because they come from a place of fear, discomfort, or anxiety. However, I do think that it’s important we understand the source of these troublesome habits we or others in our lives might display. At the very least, it can give us some insight into our own behaviors that will be crucial in learning to change them. Many people feel badly about themselves for things like procrastinating or having a short temper. They internalize society’s view of these things and make matters worse by believing they are just a lazy or mean person. Getting a deeper understanding of the root of these issues can help us offer more patience and grace to ourselves as well as others.

Recognise Your Fight or Flight (or Freeze) Responses

Mind & Body Gratitude

Reading about all of the microscopic intricacies of what is going on behind the scenes every second inside of our bodies has given me an entirely new perspective on just how much I have been taking for granted all these years. Our bodies and the trillions of cells that they are made up of are truly our dearest and most valuable friends in this life. It is absolutely staggering the amount of vital functions being performed rhythmically, silently, efficiently, and without thanks within each of us at every moment.

Our bodies are tirelessly defending us even as we sleep, completely unaware of their endless efforts to protect us and keep us healthy. The body must simultaneously perform so many different functions with precision and diligence from directing immune cells, to transporting oxygen through our bloodstream, to identifying good vs. bad bacteria in our gut, to forming new neurons, to storing memory, etc. Many of these necessary tasks are carried out despite us having little to no understanding of how or why the body does them in this way. Even in our dullest moments, there is an entire world of activity going on just beneath our fragile skin.

Really contemplating these facts, it becomes clear to me how ludicrous it is to spend so much time criticizing my body and mind for not being they way I want and expect them to be. Can you even imagine, making a cake from a molecular level, concocting everything yourself down to the very atoms that it consists of, only to have it criticized for being the wrong color or being too round or too flat? That is the rough equivalent of what we do when we judge our bodies and their worth/value to us based solely on appearances. It’s laughable when you think about it.

My body is not just what I see in the mirror. It is a fucking miracle. A perfect and awe inspiring gift from the universe crafted from eons of evolution, built on the backs of all the living organisms that have come before me. It’s an absolute crime to think I have spent most of my life hating this body for what it’s not instead of shouting my praise to the heavens for everything that it IS. And not only this body, but this mind of mine as well.

I am so harsh with my mind, sometimes even more than the rest of my body. I feel sorry for myself for suffering with anxiety and depression, for not being able to control and subdue my emotions. Yet I should know better than a lot of people how well my mind actually works in comparison to others. How many nights I’ve wasted wishing my brain worked differently. I never stopped to consider that it is actually not one I’d likely trade for another if given the chance. My brain may offer me anxiety more than I’d prefer, but it is still amazing in so many ways. For one, I have been gifted with an impeccable intellect that I cherish more than most things about myself. On a simpler and more important level though, my brain consolidates an avalanche of sensory information each second and compiles it into an understandable and accurate portrayal of the world around me. This may seem trivial. After all, that’s what the brain is supposed to do, right?

I’ve seen first hand that many brains are not up to this monumental task. Quite a few of my former clients suffered with severe mental illnesses such a schizophrenia. What a terrifying and disturbing thing it must be to not even be able to trust what your own mind is telling you. We all have slightly skewed perceptions of ourselves and the world, but for the most part, we feel confident that what our brain creates in our field of vision is actually there. What sounds we notice, come from outside of our heads, and are true vibrations being picked up by our ears. These details seem so simple, but we cannot forget that so many people would react with undying gratitude if their brains did the same things that ours do without us even noticing.

So no matter what you may think of yourself, the way you look, or the way you think, take a few moments today to be grateful for being here at all. Understand that even when you don’t love yourself, each one of the trillions of cells in your body do. They are fighting every moment for you. They are protecting you and healing you and giving you information to keep you alive and healthy and hopefully happy. We are all unimaginably complex miracles. Just consider that today, and if you can be grateful for it too.

82,472 Human Cell Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock