Fight, flight, freeze - it's an everyday issue

Most people have heard of ‘fight, flight, freeze’. There is a common misconception that these survival responses only get activated in heightened situations. 


Examples of these situations can include:

  • Friday night fights outside the pub when too much has been drunk and offence has been taken. 
  • Running away from a would-be attacker.
  • 'Rabbit in headlights' response to something shocking, often depicted in films as someone being slapped across the face to bring them back to their senses (not recommended!)

However, our everyday lives can activate our survival responses, although at a lower level than the examples above. There are also four other survival responses that are less known - fawn/friend, submit, attach/cry, and flop. Each of these has developed in order to keep us alive or to make death, as perceived by the nervous system, as painless as possible. 

Some examples of how you might be experiencing these responses are:

  • fight - rage, anger, frustration, irritation
  • flight - panic, fear, anxiety, worry, concern
  • freeze - numbness, depression, spaced out, shut down, "lazy"
  • friend/fawn - people pleasing, appeasing
  • submit - numb, going through the motions of life, depression
  • attach/cry - wanting to be rescued by another, neediness, idolisation of others 

Triggers for these are around us everyday, such as:

  • The news - which is designed to hook us in and activates the fear in us to keep us in thrall. 
  • Social media - this is designed to keep us addicted with dopamine hits. It also activates our sense of wanting to be ‘right’, so when we come across someone that has a different opinion to us, we can see them as ‘wrong’ and we can become judgemental and critical which then activates our survival response because we want to be ‘right’.
  • Jobs with deadlines and targets - this can create a ‘panic’ response that you aren’t going to meet the requirements which set off the survival response. 
  • Relationships - if we have difficult relationships where we feel unsafe this will trigger a survival response. Note that it doesn’t actually have to be unsafe, just feel unsafe.
  • Our own thoughts - if we are having hostile conversations in our head, with ourselves or an imagined other. If we are imagining adversarial events, this will also activate the survival response.
  • Making decisions if you feel you need to get it ‘right’ activates judgement, which then activates the survival response. 
  • Being cold for too long.
  • Being hungry for too long.

Functioning from these survival responses is habitual and may be difficult to notice. It is also very common. Most people are functioning from a survival response some of the time, if not most of the time. If you want to change this, first you need to start calming your nervous system down and do it regularly. There are lots of breathing techniques that help, although just taking some deep breaths will help too.

Below is a small sample of techniques from energy psychotherapy modalities that will help calm your nervous system. These are quick and easy. The earlier you do them when you notice you are starting to feel ‘off’ or distressed, the better they will work - don’t wait until you are at a crisis point. It can be a useful practice to start the day with one of the exercises below and then regularly throughout the day. 

Exercises that might help:

  • Tap on the back of the hand between the little finger and ring finger. 
  • Rub your hands together and put your middle fingers in the notch just behind your ear lobe and other fingers along the neck and cheeks - heal of the hands meeting, humming if you feel comfortable.
  • Cup your chin between your thumb and index finger.
  • Self-hug – put the left hand on the side of the ribs and the right hand holding the elbow. This is calming to ‘young parts’ of ourselves. You can also use calming self-talk ‘it's OK, you're safe, I’m here to look after you’.
  • Self-hug (version two) – tuck your hands under your armpits. Rock gently.
  • Self-hug (version three) – cross your arms so the fingertips are resting in the soft tissue just under the shoulders.
  • Pinch the webbing between your thumb and index finger. 

Another thing that would help is to find and heal the underlying issues that have created these responses in you. I would suggest that you do this with the support of a therapist.

All of these responses are about trying to feel safe. We can think safety just means being physically safe so it can be difficult to recognise if you have a roof over your head, food, water, etc. These responses are often created in childhood, so if you are finding it difficult to understand why your survival responses are active now, think back to your childhood - were you emotionally safe as well as physically?

These survival responses, when habitual, would have been set up in childhood. If you are thinking that these survival responses don’t make any sense and are irrational, it's because the responses are now out of date. They would have made sense at some point in your life. You might need some help and support in releasing the old responses and beliefs that activate them. 

If you are interested in finding out more about this, please visit my profile, or attend my workshop, 'Ways the nervous system is activated and ways to calm it'. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bere Alston, Devon, PL20
Written by Hermione Brown, Psycho-spiritual psychotherapy & counselling. BSc(Hons)
Bere Alston, Devon, PL20

In my work I draw on lots of different modalities; Integrative Intuitive Psychotherapeutic Counselling, Family/Systemic Constellations and Energy Psychotherapy. This creates a powerful and effective way of identifying and releasing issues. I have written other articles which you may be interested in reading.

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