Tackling Anxiety - Part 3

Tackling Anxiety Series Part Three: What is a “Fight or Flight” Response?

Discussion about how our bodies respond to stress and trauma has expanded from “fight, flight, or freeze” to “fight, flight, freeze, collapse (fawn), fine, and faint.” While most people associate these words as responses to traumatic experiences, less severe forms of these responses can also occur as a response to anxiety. Anxiety and trauma go hand in hand.

We can view the brain’s response to anxiety as similar to the brain’s response to trauma because the same area of the brain is activated to respond in both situations. The amygdala is the region that sends powerful chemical messages to the rest of the body when it perceives the system is in distress. It then communicates to several other areas of the brain and body that the system is in crisis. Once this happens, parts of the brain are slowed down so other parts of the brain can have more resources that can go toward the emergency. At this point, the individual then notices an urge to respond in fight, flight, freeze, collapse (fawn), fine, or faint.

  • A fight response occurs when a person goes into action. If there is potential for physical harm, the person experiencing a fight response may literally fight another individual they fear may harm them, or they may go into overdrive with frenetic activity to solve or reduce the emergency. This response reminds us of an aggressive lion.
  • A flight response occurs when a person gets as far away from the emergency or threat as quickly as possible. This response reminds us of a deer that darts away after hearing a twig snap.
  • A freeze response occurs when the person abruptly stops what they are doing in the face of an emergency. They may feel unable to move, as if they are paralyzed. Or they may show some repetitive behavior – like saying “I don’t know” to every question they are asked or rocking back and forth. This response reminds us of a little rabbit crouching as still as possible so that the threatening animal doesn’t notice it.
  • A collapse or fawn response may involve a person giving in to the emergency, especially after they tried to fight, flee, or freeze. They may do everything they are instructed in an effort to diffuse the emergency and get back to a sense of normal. This may look like people-pleasing in individuals who have a long history of family conflict or abuse. This response reminds us of a gazelle or other animals that “play dead” when under attack (which is actually a natural physiological response to threat for some animals).
  • A fine response occurs when a person completely disconnects from what is happening, as if it is not happening or never happened. They can range from minimizing a threat to a complete dissociation from reality.
  • A faint response occurs when a person literally passes out. This is relatively rare, but happens when the body is so overwhelmed it prompts a vasovagal reaction that results in a faint.

But what if there really isn’t an emergency? That’s how people usually end up calling BATT for some help. It is most upsetting to experience the adrenaline rush and flood of physical reactions when there is no identified emergency, but there is good news! All the therapists at BATT are trained to help people dealing with anxiety. Please reach out if you need our help.

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