How Your Body Responds to Stress: Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Have you ever found yourself overreacting to a minor threat? Jumped out of your skin because someone startled you? Or maybe you’ve been dealing with chronic feelings of stress…and you’re wondering how to shut those feelings off. The body’s response to threats — real or imagined, falls into one of three categories: fight, flight, or freeze. 

Once upon a time, humans had to have a very heightened stress response. One that would allow them to escape a dangerous situation…like being chased by a wolf. The sympathetic nervous system evolved to adapt to these life and death situations regularly encountered by early man. Our stress hormones told us that one of just a few options was the answer to external threats. We could either run from the wolf, turn and fight the wolf, or freeze and hope it didn’t see us. 

Problem is, in many ways, our nervous systems are still mounting a response to major, life-threatening situations, but the triggers are more like an email or social media status than a wolf chase.

We may not actually flee or completely freeze like a deer in headlights, but we still feel the effects of the fight/flight/freeze response kick in. We experience symptoms like:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shaking
  • Passing out
  • Feeling jumpy even long after the threat has passed

And sometimes, because modern life can be so stressful, we end up in a kind of prolonged state of fight or flight, a situation that can have long-term consequences for health.   

The Fight Flight Freeze Response

The fight, flight, freeze response is involuntary. It’s something we can’t really stop from happening.

And we don’t really want to. After all, it’s the mechanism that helps us to survive scary situations.

Without a proper fear response, we wouldn’t be able to jump out of the way of an oncoming car or fight off an approaching off-leash dog.

We need this automatic kind of protection for when real danger arises.

The problem comes in because ‘real’ danger is not likely something that we encounter on a daily basis. Sure, we have perceived dangers and phobias to deal with, but we usually don’t have actual potentially life-threatening situations arise regularly.

If your body is reacting to what should be regular old stressors like getting the kids to school on time or figuring out a new software system at work with full-on fight-or-flight type symptoms, it’s a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system isn’t working as it should.

Your parasympathetic nervous system is the counter to the sympathetic nervous system, the originator of the fight or flight response. In an ideal situation, your parasympathetic system should kick in and help counteract the fight or flight response.

Luckily, there are ways to help engage a more enthusiastic response from the parasympathetic nervous system. 

The trick is being aware of when and how your fight, flight, or freeze response is being activated. And then learn some ways to calm your nervous system so you can bring yourself out of stress mode.

It’s important to note that for some people, their heightened fight/flight/freeze reaction is heightened due to trauma or abuse. In these instances, it’s important to work with a mental health professional to help you.    

How To Calm The Nervous System

When you feel your anxiety levels start to rise and your heart rate increase, there are several tools you can leverage to help calm the nervous system and get back to feeling relaxed.

Here are some of the ways I recommend to my patients who are dealing with chronic stress or over-reactive responses to everyday stressors.

  1. Focus On Toning Your Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve runs nearly the length of your entire body, and allows your brain to communicate with tissues and other organs. Vagal practices like meditation, deep breathing, and singing or chanting help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and bring your stress response down. 

  1. Exercise

Exercise is amazing for so many reasons, and helping reduce stress response is one of those ways exercise can benefit you. Try whatever physical activity appeals to you — like yoga, walking, or tai chi. 

  1. Adaptogens

Certain herbs have a reputation for helping the body deal with stress. Ashwagandha, Rhodiola, Siberian ginseng, and holy basil are popular choices.

  1. Maintain social connections

As I talk about in my book, Built to Thrive, maintaining a social network is a key component of overall health. Having people you trust to rely on and talk through things is a great way to keep stress levels down. And laughter is the best antidote to stress there is! 

Get To The Bottom Of Stress

Sometimes, stress can become more than just a fleeting moment of fight, flight, or freeze. It becomes a chronic feeling — or it’s so present in your life that you don’t even realize your body is in constant stress mode.

When this happens, it can leave you feeling tired, or manifest in psychological symptoms like anxiety, depression, and addiction. It can also cause physical symptoms. Physical symptoms can include stomach problems, high blood pressure, inability to lose weight, and heart disease.

If you’re feeling tired and you’re not sure why, chronic stress can certainly be the culprit. 

Try taking my quiz below to see if we can shed some light on why you’re feeling so run down.


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“Adrenal Responses to Stress – NCBI – NIH.”