How to Calm Your Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

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How to Calm Your Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

alert chipmonk to depict fight/flight/freeze response

You have an emergency alert system.  When your brain gets the “danger, danger” warning signal, you move into emergency alert mode.  This is super useful when there is an actual emergency.  It is designed to keep you alive.   

Your alert system can be useful in non-lethal, concrete situations: You are hosting a family/friend get-together, making sure you are paying enough attention to your guests when you hear a sudden “Arrgh” and “Crap” from the kitchen.  You speed walk to the kitchen.  There you find a minor emergency – sharp knife, finger a little too close to the carrot.  This is when your emergency alert system is great.  From distracted party host to first aid efficiency.  Assess and bandage.  Clean and sanitize.  Finish veggie tray and you are good to go.   

Emergencies with clear solutions tend to be easier to handle.  What happens when your emergency alert system has been triggered by things that are much less tangible and therefore less fixable? For example: terrible story on the news, relationship conflict, financial/legal/work trouble.  These kind of situations can activate the brain’s emergency alert system, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response.  Recognizing when you are in such a state and finding an antidote can improve your health and well-being. 

What does your emergency alert look like?  Below I describe some of the states I have recognized in myself and others. 

lego figures depicting fight

Fight

Snappy, generally angry with the world, irritable, feel like I want someone to cross me so I have somewhere to go with this uncomfortable energy. Explosive, quick to anger with my words or my fists.  Suspect of other’s intentions, wondering, “what do you mean by that?”

lego figure depicting flight - runing away

Flight

Restless, want to leave, panicked sense of needing to “get out of here”.  Start a whole new project so I can quit thinking about my current stress.  Focusing on rescuing others, so I don’t have to take care of my own mess. Thinking, “I’m out of here; I can’t do this anymore.”

lego figure depicting freeze

Freeze

Lie there feeling frozen.  Not really thinking, just waiting for the bad thing – whatever that is.  Giving up.  Keep your head down and wait for it to be over.  Play endless games of candy crush to keep from paying attention or thinking about the bad thing. 

Granted, there are times when any one of these responses might be a good idea.  “Keep your head down and wait for it to be over,” is exactly what you are supposed to do, once you are in a secure spot during a tornado watch.  Sometimes these fight, flight, or freeze modes are not helpful. 

Telling yourself, “You are fine, just calm down” does not work.  It also does not work on other people.  Both the brain and body are literally in survival mode.  Telling them “Don’t worry about it.” is generally pointless.  (Telling anybody to “stop” generally doesn’t work.  This is why you hear Kindergarten teachers say “use your indoor voice” instead of “stop yelling”.) 

How do we help our brains and bodies?  Put them to work doing something else.  Find an antidote behavior:   

card with text "phone a friend"

Option 1: 

Journal or talk to a good listener to sort out what put you into emergency alert in the first place.  Name your emotions.   

testtube to depict antidote

Option 2: 

Notice what state you are in and find an antidote to being stuck there.  

 

Fight mode: want action and have energy to spend 

Antidote:  Give your muscles something to do.  Run, clean, pull weeds, dance to loud music, create art in a big way. This might be a good time to do constructive destruction: “I’ve been meaning to take that old workbench apart and throw it out.” 

 

Flight mode:  want to get away, need for distance 

Antidote:  Take a walk, have a dance party in your kitchen, do small tasks that help you feel you’ve gotten something done (laundry, craft/art), dive into a book/movie to give yourself mental space or reach out to a friend and plan a get-together.

 

Freeze mode: craving safety and calm   

Antidote:  Take gentle care of yourself (warm blanket, tea, bath or shower). Reach out to nature – step outside or look at a houseplant, tracing all the shapes with your eyes.  Do the five senses grounding activity. 

 

words depicting gratitiude

Option 3: 

Gratitude 

Thank your emergency alert system for working to keep you safe.  Realize that if there was something to be done in the moment that your response might be super helpful.  This is what allows ordinary people to be heroes.  “I just did what needed to be done.”   

 

news camera to evoke news media

Option 4: 

Notice when your emergency alert system is being deliberately triggered.  So much of how news and marketing works is to trigger us.  On a comical level I think of the paper towel ad “Noooooooo”.  By noticing the deliberate triggers you may be able to avoid it or block its effects on you. 

Part of being resilient is appreciating our emergency alert system, noticing when it is triggered, and responding in a way that is healthy for us.  I would love to hear what “antidotes” you use when you find yourself stuck in a non-helpful alert system. Leave a comment on facebook at Learn Model Teach: Resilience, or send an email to resilience@LearnModelTeach.com.

Peace,

Laura