The Fight, Flight or Freeze Response

The fight or flight response has been around as long as human beings have been around. It’s the body’s hardwired alarm system. If you think of the human body as a computer, the fight-­or-­flight response is an essential part of the operating system. You couldn’t really function (or live that long) without it.

When you encounter a dangerous or threatening situation, this alarm system goes off, and your body goes through a number of changes. For example, during the fight-­or-­flight response, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • An increase in heart rate
  • Perspiration or sweating
  • Narrowing of field of vision (also called “tunnel vision”)
  • Muscle tension
  • Sensitive hearing
  • Racing thoughts
  • Shortness of breath
  • Goose bumps
  • Dry mouth

These experiences aren’t random; they all serve a very important purpose. They prepare you for immediate action. They are preparing you either to flee the situation to avoid any harm or to fight if escape is not possible. In situations where fleeing or fighting is not necessarily a good option, your body may also freeze (kind of like a deer caught in a car’s headlights).

This response is automatic. It occurs without thinking. This is important because it allows you to respond quickly when you are in a dangerous situation. For example, let’s say that you are walking through the woods and come across a bear. Your fight-­or-­flight response will be activated, and you will likely freeze or flee. The sudden and automatic changes that your body goes through will help keep you alive in this dangerous situation. Now, if you had to think about the situation before the fight-­or-­flight response was activated, you would waste precious time. You would have to evaluate the size of the bear and the sharpness of its claws and teeth. And, by the time you figured all of that out, you would probably be supper for the bear! Therefore, the fight-­or-­flight response is incredibly helpful and adaptive. We likely wouldn’t be alive as a species today without it.

Sources: The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook for Anxiety

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