Fight, Flight, Freeze — The Brain’s Stress Response explained

Every emotion starts off in our brain. It can be surprising, therefore, how much we feel these emotions, often as strong physical reactions to the circumstances we find ourselves in. Sometimes if we don’t regularly express our emotions they can be stored up in our body over time until they eventually bubble up and rush out of us, almost like a big volcanic explosion. Or imagine a bucket that fills up with water and eventually overflows. We might feel so frustrated or angry that we react by screaming at someone even though we know this might escalate the issue or lead us into greater trouble. We might feel so overwhelmed by homework, competitions, social pressures, or our general feelings, that we then start crying or run away and hide in our room.

It can be all too easy to label such feelings as “negative” emotions, but it’s far more helpful to consider the important role these feelings play in our lives. All emotions are there to help us in some way — even “negative” ones like anger or anxiety — because they help us to work out how to best respond in different situations. If we understand how our brain and emotions work, we can start figuring out different strategies for calming down big emotions, and therefore prevent the bucket from overflowing in the first place.

Photo by NEOSiAM 2021

You can think of the brain in three parts:

  1. The frontal lobe, a.k.a our Smart Brain — the logical part of our brain that helps us with communicating, reading, writing, thinking clearly, and solving problems.
  2. The limbic system, a.k.a our Emotional Brain — this is where our emotions come from.
  3. The brainstem, a.k.a, our Survival Brain — this part of the brain is responsible for breathing, heart rate, movement, sleep, and more. It can help our bodies to respond quickly in dangerous situations to help keep us safe.

When we feel very strong emotions, the logical, problem-solving smart brain can temporarily go offline. This is so that our emotional brain can focus on sending messages to our survival brain, in order that it can prepare our body to either fight, flee or freeze in a dangerous situation.

Let’s imagine you’d see a tiger. The survival brain would need to quickly react to this dangerous animal and take charge, so that you could keep yourself safe. There wouldn’t be any time for the logical brain to think what kind of a tiger it is, or why it might be here– all that matters in that moment would be to remove the immediate danger.

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The fight response would be to run screaming at the tiger, or to try and tackle it head on. In real life, this response often looks like intense anger. The flight response would tell you to run away from the tiger, which is the same feeling you get in real life when you want to escape a situation. The freeze response would tell you to stay quiet and still and hope that the tiger would simply go away if you didn’t move a muscle. This is how it feels when we freeze up in real life.

Sometimes when we experience a lot of stress, our brain can think that we are in danger and it will trigger either a fight, flight or freeze response. When we feel very stressed or have big emotions in situations like having a fight with our friends, before a test, or giving a speech, it can feel like nothing else matters in that moment. But stressful though these circumstances may be, there is no tiger waiting to pounce, however much it might feel that way. It is not as dangerous as our survival brain wants us to believe.

So, what can you do to help your brain identify that we are “only” feeling really stressed, or scared, or sad, or anxious, so that we don’t react by fighting, running away or freezing up? We need to let our body know that we are not facing an insurmountable danger. In order to feel more grounded, we need our smart brain to help us manage our emotional brain.

Here’s a few techniques that can help:

  1. Calm down your body — take deep breaths, go for a run, do some jumping jacks, have a relaxing bath or shower, practice progressive muscle relaxation, or do whatever helps you to feel soothed and reassured.
  2. Calm down your mind — visualise a place you feel safe in, practice mindfulness, use the 54321 grounding method, say positive and encouraging things to yourself like, “I can do this.”
  3. Prevent the bucket from overflowing — talk to family and friends about your everyday feelings, start a mood journal, write down your anxious/stressed/angry thoughts and put them into a worry box.

Managing big emotions takes a lot of practice and different people prefer different techniques. Try out as many techniques as you can and find out which ones work best for you. And then keep on practicing even when you are feeling calm already. This will help you release whatever’s already stored up in your bucket, making it easier to calm down when the next stressful situation arises.

I hope this post is helpful. If you would like to discuss any of the above further, please contact me.

Lukas Dressler Psychotherapy.plus

Lukas Dressler (he/him)
Psychotherapy.plus
Counselling Psychologist (MSc.)
HCPC Registered No. PYL041915
Integrative Psychotherapist (MBACP)

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Lukas Dressler - Psychotherapy Plus

Counselling Psychologist (MSc.), HCPC Registered, Integrative Psychotherapist for Children and Young People.