Fight or Flight Response


You have probably heard of the fight or flight response before. But really what is it, what’s its purpose, and how can understanding it help us?


The fight or flight response (also known as the sympathetic nervous system) is the response that keeps us alive in dangerous or scary situations. It’s the part of the brain that tells us to either fight that bear we see in the woods or to run. There is also another response, which is to freeze. So really it is the fight, flight, or freeze response. Because maybe in this situation the safest thing to do would be to stay really still and hope that bear does not see you.


Why do I bring up the freeze response? Often times there can be guilt when we as humans “freeze” in a dangerous situation. Let’s use the example of domestic violence. A victim might say “I should have left the relationship sooner.” or “I should have fought back.” but the reality is the victim’s brain may have been telling her the safest thing to do was to stay in the situation at that moment. What might happen when a victim of domestic violence fights back? Well, the abuser is likely bigger and stronger so is that really the safe thing to do? Leaving without a safety plan in place  can also be dangerous. Freezing IS NOT A SIGN OF COWARDICE, IT IS A SURVIVAL INSTINCT.


You’re brain is really good at determining the best course of action because it occurs in the oldest part of the brain evolutionarily speaking. Over many years the brain has perfected the staying alive response. All animals have this fight, flight, or freeze response. You can observe it when you go to the zoo or watch your dog.  It occurs in the part of the brain that is in charge of the autonomic nervous system, things our body does without thinking, such as breathing and our heart beating. So often times our fight, flight, or freeze response happens even before conscious thinking occurs, like a reflex.


What happens to our body when we utilize our fight, flight, or freeze response? The blood rushes to our arms and legs to help us fight or flee. So if the blood is rushing to your arms and legs where is the blood and the body not focusing? On the trunk of your body. And where are all your vital organs? You can see where I am going with this…. The body does not focus on things such as digestion and other body functions when we are running from a bear because it figures “let’s first get away from this bear and THEN we can focus on those other bodily functions”. 


For so much of history this worked great, get away from the bear and then the body can relax and recover. But our society and technology has started moving at such a fast pace that the evolution of our brain can barely keep up! This function works great with things like bears but the reality is the world we live in is much different. Bear are infrequently a problem, but we do feel threatened by such things as a rude email, an angry friend, ot rush hour traffic. Its hard to fight or run from these things. And so we often function from the sympathetic nervous system at times that may not be the most helpful. This can take a toll our bodies and can be just plain exhausting!


Good news for us that there is a function of the body that counterbalances the sympathetic nervous system and that is the parasympathetic nervous system. We will explore the parasympathetic nervous system and how to access it in future blog posts.

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Theresa Leskowat MS LPC is an anxiety and trauma counselor. Theresa teaches her clients about how the brain works and helps them use that knowledge to live a happier, healthier life.