Our Body’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response to Stress

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Our Body’s Fight, Flight or Freeze Response to Stress

Our body’s fight, flight or freeze response to stress

The effects of chronic stress are damaging even when short-lived.

A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a difficult job interview, or psychological, like a fear of flying — can trigger a surge of hormones that create physiological stress as well as mental stress.

Our body’s fight, flight or freeze response rapidly activates energy stores in order to survive a life-threatening situation. It evolved as an automatic response, a key survival mechanism known as the “fight-or-flight” response. In recent years it has been termed the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. However, a variety of circumstances can also trigger this response. This occurs when the body exaggerates stressful events that are in fact, not life-threatening.

Fight – The body prepares for battle by delivering energy to larger muscles

Flight – The surge in hormones and energy prepares the body for a fast escape

Freeze – If no escape route is perceived, the subject may experience the freeze response

What’s the physiological process?

  • A threat is perceived
  • The nervous system alerts the body
  • The adrenal cortex releases stress hormones
  • The heart beats more rapidly and harder
  • Breathing quickens
  • The thyroid gland increases metabolic activity
  • Larger muscles get more oxygenated blood

Research has identified significant effects of prolonged chronic stress in relation to both physical and psychological well-being. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), when the muscles in the body become taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions as well as stress-related disorders. For example, both tension-type headache and migraine headache are associated with chronic muscle tension of the shoulders, neck and head. It can also promote rapid breathing which may lead to hyperventilation or panic attacks. Long-term ongoing stress is linked to an increased risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke, and cholesterol levels may be also affected by the response to stress. These are just some examples of many in relation to stress and the body.

The reason the fight, flight or freeze response is significant to overall well-being is due to the changes in hormones, neurotransmitters, and physiology it creates. It’s a survival mechanism that serves its purpose in extremely dangerous scenarios, however, when it malfunctions, it can wreak havoc on the mind and body.

One proven cause of anxiety is inactivity. Our bodies are designed for activity, so a lack of exercise may contribute to malfunctioning stress responses. The modern world has many demands that create daily acute stress situations for humans. However, dysfunctional thought processes, or an inability to cope can severely impact the quality of life one experiences.

Simple ways to manage excessive Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

  • Recognize anxiety-provoking thoughts and consider how much real danger is present.

What fear creates your anxiety? Is it realistic, or are you jumping to conclusions by thinking of the worst-case scenario?

  • Try to look at it from an external perspective.

What words of advice would you give your son/daughter, or sibling if they had similar fears in order to ease their anxiety?

The important thing is to find out what works for you when you are feeling distressed. 

How do you manage your difficult emotions and restore a sense of calm?

If you feel overwhelmed by anxiety and you have difficulty managing it by yourself, we have a team of experienced clinical psychologists available to help. To learn more about our practices, contact Oasis Counseling at 702.294.0433 (locations throughout Southern Nevada). http://oasiscounselingtoday.com

1 Comment

  1. Great article. I’m facing many of these issues as well..

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