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The Stress Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze

What scares you?

We are all scared of different things. For some, it might be speeding cars while for others it might be fire or heights. However, we have something in common: the way our body responds to danger.

What is the fight-flight-freeze response?

The fight-flight-freeze response is the way our body is programmed to respond when we see or feel a danger. It is not something you can control, but it is something that can help you save your life during a dangerous situation.

What happens to your body?

Let’s say you hear a growling dog behind you; your brain detects a danger. The signal is sent automatically to the part of your brain where fear appears, and then the signal goes to the hypothalamus that controls that autonomic nervous system.

All takes place in a matter of seconds, and almost instantly your body starts producing adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare every part of your body to fight with the potential threat. Your heart rate increases and so does your breathing. This means that your major muscles will receive more oxygen. This prepares you for fighting or running.

At the same time, your vision and hearing become better. You can notice how your pupils dilate. The adrenaline also has effect on your blood, as it becomes thicker in order to decrease the bleeding in case of an injury. You might also experience goosebumps, shivers or increased sweat as well as cold feet and hands.

Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency.–Natalie Goldberg

What about the pain?

One extraordinary thing that happens is the reduction of your pain perception; this means that even if  you get hurt, you will not experience pain in the way you usually do. This will allow you to fight or run away from the danger.

You fight, you run or you freeze?

The way you respond to danger depends not only on the circumstance, but also on your psychological status. The freeze response is usually your brain’s way of allowing you to think about what you’re supposed to do next. Unlike the fight or flight response, the freezing is triggered by the parasympathetic nervous system. Depending on what system controls your reaction, your body chooses if you fight, flight or freeze.

In freeze state, your heart rate and breathing might decrease.

The more time you spend in a flight, fight or freeze state the more you will need to get back to normal.

Most of the time, regardless of the state you are in, the effects start to disappear after 20-30 minutes.

While this is a response that will help you in case of danger, there are conditions that can trigger this reaction even when there is no danger in sight. Anxiety, trauma or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) can make your body release adrenaline and cortisol in situations that put emotional pressure on you without being an actual danger.

People who experienced a car accident, for example, might experience an overactive response while hearing a car noise. At the same time, people who suffer from anxiety can deal with an exaggerated response when they have to talk in front of a crowd.

Learn your triggers and repetitive stress situations for you!

It is important to understand your reaction to danger and stress. You will not be surprised of what is happening to your body, and at the same time you will be able to prevent and control an exaggerated response.

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