Fight, Flight, or Freeze Isn’t Always a Physical Response

I was thinking of “fight or flight” and how it’s not always a physical reaction. Sometimes, it’s psychological. I did a corresponding YouTube video which you can watch here.

I came across this article ( called Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means.

I wanted to highlight how a person’s automatic response to real or perceived danger is to either fight it or flee from it, a learned self-preservation tactic. An easy example would be suddenly hearing a dog growling as you’re walking. You may immediately run (flight) in the opposite direction of the noise, stop walking while facing the direction you were currently walking in (freeze), or turn toward the sound in a defensive stance (fight).

I was thinking about this in regards to real or perceived emotional trauma or discomfort. I realized people may not have a physical response to what’s going on in their mind. They may appear to be standing still (freeze), however their mind may be in flight mode. What I’m saying is: their mind may be fleeing the discomfort by dismissing the trauma, a subconscious choice to ignore the feelings associated with the situation.

I’ve had numerous clients who were able to recall traumatic events in their life, without presenting any negative emotion. Three of things were happening in their mind at the memory they shared: 1. They dissociated from the situation so as not to feel any emotions or ensuing trauma associated with it (flight). 2. They had previous processed and healed from the trauma, which left no negative impact on their psyche (fight). 3. They denied the situation had a traumatic effect on them at all, which would leave them in a perpetual stage of unresolved trauma without working toward emotional and psychological healing (freeze).  

Labeling the above scenarios:

  1. Flight: The dissociated person’s mind ran from the problem by not allowing themselves to feel the pain.
  2. Fight: The emotionally healed person made a conscious choice to face the problem and find a resolution to heal their psychological pain as well as compartmentalizing the trauma to the person who initiated it and not viewing others as the perpetrator.
  3. Freeze: A person in denial, or willful ignorance, is frozen in the traumatic state and unfortunately will remain emotionally unstable, though they may have brief periods of perceived normalcy.

The article I linked above spoke of “freezing” as “fight-or-flight on hold.” Meaning, a person may freeze while waiting for whatever will happen next. The author wrote freezing is “also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility.” To which I add that it may happen psychologically. Something happens and a person’s mind shuts down and shuts out the threat, maybe to deal with later or not to deal with it at all.

We learn fight-or-flight as children from what happens around us, the threats or trauma we’re exposed to, and what worked best for us at that time to get us through those situations. The response we learn becomes a part of who we are and we carry that response into our adult lives, unless and until we acknowledge and work to heal ourselves from the negative situations that propelled us there. The good news is just as we learned a response, we can unlearn it and learn a new one with the appropriate help. A question to ask yourself is: Is this person or situation really a physical or emotional danger to me? It’s important to ask yourself this question when your mind is quieted, at peace, and able to think objectively.

A person who has experienced trauma develops a sensitivity to additional trauma, which may or may not lead back to the patterns of what happened in their developmental years. It’s said a person may over-react to a situation, believing it’s a repeat of the initial offense when it may not be. An example would be someone who has a history of PTSD, assault, been in an accident, survived natural disasters, lived through childhood traumas, or been repeated exposed to stressful life events. An example would be someone walking away from a car accident, but physically jolting every time they hear a car horn blow. Their mind takes them back to the accident and their body reacts as if they’re in danger even if they’re in a safe space.

A funny, well now funny, example is when my second husband and I were looking at our soon-to-be new home. We were walking through the yard beneath trees. I heard a “thump!” “Thump!” I immediately covered my head and crouched down to the ground. I peered around and realized the “thump!” I’d heard were nuts hitting the ground. I looked up and saw squirrels in the tree branches dropping nuts. My mind went back to my inner-city days of hearing gun shots. My natural instinct was to duck and over my head so I wouldn’t be hit by a stray bullet. My husband and I dubbed the squirrels the “suicide bomb squirrel squad” and it became a funny story we’d tell our family and friends. I didn’t realize I’d been traumatized by hearing gun shots when I was younger, and this is a prime example of how we can be negatively affected by something and not realize it until something triggers us later on in life.

I encourage people to build a strong support system as well as seek therapy to help them overcome past trauma. A therapist can help uncover other ways to self-soothe so healing can begin. Emotionally and psychologically freezing or fleeing the acknowledgment and healing of past trauma leaves one incapable of building healthy friendships and relationships because they’ve closed part of themselves off to others. Such people generally lack compassion for others on more than a surface level because their mind isn’t able to provide ongoing support. They likely won’t check on you to ask if you’re okay if you’ve told them you were struggling with something.

They generally don’t keep in touch with friends and family members on a regular basis, usually it’s others who reach out to them. The danger is that others see this person as being stable, so they don’t offer any support, which further perpetuates the possible feeling that they’re uncared for, unsupported, and unloved. They have a wall built up that not only prevents them from coming out and possibly being hurt, it also prevents others from fully entering their lives. It’s risky to emotionally and psychologically open up to others, a therapist can help you learn boundaries to keep yourself safe, though the rewards are priceless when you’re with the right person or persons and have a healthy support system.

People may subconsciously cover up their feelings by fleeing reality and engaging more in roleplay activities. They may spend a great deal of time alone, which eliminates any external accountability to work on resolving their past issues. They may have friends and family members they say they’re close to. However, they don’t openly share their feelings with them. Friends and family members cannot help you if they’re unaware you’re struggling with something. It’s important to open up and accept their support. It’s important to be aligned with honest people, those who will tell the truth even if it may sound harsh. A person who’s always agreeable and never confrontational isn’t able to help you address your issues because they’re simply attempting to soothe you. You’ve been soothing yourself all along by not facing your past situations, make a conscious choice to stop freezing and fleeing and to start fighting for your emotional and psychological health.

I hope you found this article helpful. If so, please share with others.

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If you’re struggling with emotional and psychological fight, flight, or freezing, I’d love to hear your stories. Comments always welcome.

Thank you.

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I journeyed from GED to a PhD in Psychology. I decided to focus on my writing once I retired from the clinical field. I write in various genres and have several WIPs for publication once edited. I post articles on this website for intellectual and entertainment purposes.

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