By Carissa Weber
Humans are not born with a lot of instincts. Our whole human survival has hinged on our ability to learn how to avoid things that can kill us. Whether from avoiding poisonous berries and not getting eaten, to more present problems like our being stuck in traffic or wrestling a fitted sheet, these activities have been engrained in our brains as threats to our survival. Survival all come from our ability to learn (thank you hypothalamus and glutamate!) and apply those memories (thanks thalamus and serotonin!) when we have to be in survival mode.
This survival mode goes by several names. Medically, it is known as an acute stress response. To everyone else, it has been known as the fight-flight-freeze response (or in this post, the triple F response). In this post, we will go over the different parts of the fight-flight-freeze response, why we still have it, and how to recognize it when it happens.
As mentioned above, the fight-flight-freeze response was spawned out of necessity. The term, fight or flight response, was originally coined in the 1920s By Walter Cannon as a way to describe what our bodies involuntarily did when faced with a stressor (Cherry, 2019). Note how freeze isn’t there. In a lot of studies and literature, they only include the fight-flight responses. It wasn’t considered part of an acute stress response until the early 2000s (despite the fact all animals have demonstrated it and science first studied it in the 1920s).
As I digress, it was observed in the 1915 study Cannon conducted on the reactions of animals facing catastrophic crises, such as pain, starvation, or danger (Cannon, 1915). As part of this initial study, the animals were subjected to multiple tests and stressors to determine what physiologically would happen. These stressors included starvation, being chased by a predator, and facing off in a battle for dominance. It was through Cannon’s work that animals were observed to have hypervigilance (a.k.a. -heightened sensory input, like better smell and eyesight), adrenaline found in their blood samples, and an increase respiration, muscle tension and heart rates. These findings were the same across the board and across species. Cannon concluded that these functions were part of an involuntary emergency response to keep the animal safe, and alive.
“Fear has two meanings: 1. Forget-Everything-And-Run 2. Face-Everything-And-Rise. The choice is yours.”– Zig Ziglar
During this same time period, another scientist, Hans Selye, was studying how stress impacted the human body. During his medical school years, Selye became horribly homesick. why wouldn’t he? He was a young Hungarian man studying in the Czech Republic. While he was on his way home, he started to toy with the idea of biological stress. This is what inspired him to go into research and ultimately form what is known as stress theory. He used some of Cannon’s ideas of an emergency response to tie in to his own theory of stress response. He was able to confirm this and 1949 when he started doing autopsies on animals, specifically rats, that were exposed to stressors. What he found was amazing!
Selye found in stressed out rats that their hypothalamus’ were significantly smaller than their non-stressed counterparts. He also found a triad of health concerns: stomach ulcers, weakened bones, and how much of a role adrenaline really played. He won a Nobel peace prize in 1949 for his work on identifying Seyle Syndrome, which outlined the mechanics of the fight flight response in the body (Stage 1: being alarmed [better known as the fight or flight response], Stage 2: Resisting the stress response, and Stage 3: pure exhaustion).
Throughout the years, the fight or flight response has been studied to better understands what triggers this response in humans. In 1993, a group of scientists did a study on rape and sexual assault survivors and found the women in the study described feeling paralyzed during their attacks (Galliano G, Noble LM, Travis LA, Puechl C., 1993). It wasn’t until 2002 when scientist David Barlow, really got down to business to figure out why so many animals freeze (like that deer in the middle of the road). Known as tonic immobility, the freeze response has been observed to help an animal evade a life altering stressor (like being hunted or stalked). Animals (and humans, too) learned that freezing up and “playing dead” releases the actual stressor. Seems kind of backwards, doesn’t it? Many people would think if you continued to put up a fight or tried to outrun the lone wolf trying to eat you that you could survive. Playing dead, on the other hand, fools the predator into thinking the prey animal is already dead so they release the pressure of the chase (or bite force, take your pick). When that pressure is released, the prey animal makes a run for it, totally surprising the predator.
Now that we have a background history of the discover the fight-flight-freeze response and why it is important, let us take a deeper look at the brain’s role in the triple F.
To start off this awesome survival reaction, that darn amygdala picks up signals from our senses (our sight, smell, hearing, and touch sensations in particular) via the thalamus and interprets them as a highly dangerous situation. Once it perceives the danger, the amygdala sends the S. O. S. To the hypothalamus. With its marching orders in place, the hypothalamus sends a message to our adrenal glands, which sets off the release of adrenaline and noradrenalin. As soon adrenaline and noradrenalin are released, you feel your heart start to race and your blood pressure goes up, as well as your respirations. You may not notice it, but the pupils in your eyes dilate to help you see better. Adrenaline and nor adrenaline is preparing your body to either take a stand, run like the dickens away, or curl up in a ball and pretend you’re dead.
As your muscles tense up, the amygdala and hypothalamus received the message that you are still in the dangerous situation. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the adrenal gland to release a hormone called cortisol. As discussed in the previous post cortisol is a hormone that tells our body it is stressed. While cortisol is present, the body is triple F response will continue and you may experience several of the following symptoms:
- Rapid heart beat
- muscle tension
- increased respirations
- stomach and digestive upset (yes, it is common to feel nauseous and perhaps even experience increased gas and diarrhea)
- struggling with memory and recalling events
- feeling “on edge” (you know, like you just downed a whole pot of coffee and are now angry at everything for no identified reason)
- A decrease sensation of pain
Once the amygdala perceives the threat and danger have passed, it tells the hypothalamus to stop allowing cortisol to pass. With cortisol diminishing, so does adrenaline and noradrenaline. This means our body starts to relax, our heart stops beating out of our chests, and we feel like we can finally take a deep breath. Believe it or not, the process of the amygdala signaling the hypothalamus to release adrenaline and noradrenalin happens in a matter of seconds. Even though it happened so fast, it can take a body 20 to 30 minutes to recover from being in the fight – flight – freeze response. This is where that final stage of Selye’s syndrome comes in. Once the stress response is over, your body is so drained that it needs time to recover. What is the best way to recover, sleep!
Now you may ask where is the prefrontal cortex in all of this? If you recall from my first post, the thalamus decides to act like a gatekeeper and determines what part of the brain gets what information. As soon as the amygdala receives the information of a perceived threat, it runs so quickly that it overtakes the prefrontal cortex. By the time the prefrontal cortex gets in the loop with what is going on, it whispers “we are indeed in danger.”
I bet you are wondering how can you tell which response will happen: the fight, the flight, or the freeze? Until you get to know yourself better, it is almost impossible to identify which situations will cause which response. There are some people out there (like myself) that always seem to want to stay and fight the stress (emergency workers are known for their drive to run TO danger while everyone else runs away). I can think of several clients who struggle with their body shutting down and freezing up on them when they face a stressor (like if you’ve been screamed at and verbally abused your whole life, the volume of someone’s voice could stop you in your tracks). Lastly, we all know that one person when they become overwhelmed they go and hide (if you’ve ever cried in the bathroom at work, school, or at your in-law’s place, this would be speaking to you). Each stressor can provide a different triple F response in the same person.
All of this information is awesome, but I bet one question you guys have would be why does this still exist? Even better, why is this so intense when there is no real danger? Well, you can blame your overactive amygdala for that. Anytime your amygdala perceives a threat, it sounds the alarm to set off the triple F response. The more it does it, the more our hypothalamus struggles to keep up. This is where our hypothalamus starts to shrink and we start to experience long-term side effects of stress. It is hard to break the cycle because our body’s chemical system then becomes unbalanced. When it does, that is when we start to see symptoms such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), become problematic. Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol become a way of life because that darn amygdala thinks everything is a threat. This means even the littlest things, let’s say your kids deciding not to pick up the room or having to make dinner (again), will build on that response and become a threat signal for your amygdala to alarm the whole system.
Now comes the fun part! Now we can look at how we can reduce the triple F response and help our brain. First things first, we have to be able to identify what our life stressors currently are. By identifying them, we are allowing our prefrontal cortex to have a voice (and start to kindly tell that darn amygdala to “shut up!”). This means, you have to sit down and look at what you are physically feeling, emotionally feeling, and observing around you. This will also help you build up what is known as emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the process of gaining an understanding of how your emotions impact your body (and everything around you). By gaining emotional intelligence, you will be able to recognize when your body is entering the triple F response.
Another way we can help our body prepare to fight off the fight – flight – freeze response is by becoming mindful and using mindfulness skills. Mindfulness skills are an awesome topic all on their own (and will have its own dedicated blog post in the near future), so I will outline the short synopsis as to why they work now:
- Improves your brain’s ability to slow down (and give your prefrontal cortex a stronger voice)
- Naturally slows down your respiration and improves the oxygen exchange in your body. This in itself helps decrease your blood pressure and heart rate
- Build on emotional intelligence by allowing your amygdala to acknowledge emotions versus acting on them
The other way we can combat the acute stress response is by looking at relaxation techniques. Some of you may already know ways to help your body relax. Whether it is deep breathing, yoga, crocheting, or exercising, relaxation helps lower stress. When we want to relax, we want to signal those neurotransmitters responsible for relaxation. In my last post, we talked a lot about the role of GABA and serotonin about helping us regulate our mood and feeling happiness. Regularly practicing activities that relax us release those neurotransmitters. Isn’t it neat to see that the saying “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is true? In case I didn’t sound like a broken record yet, make sure you take regular time to relax the help keep the triple F response at bay!
I want to thank you all for taking time out to learn more about why our brain makes us nervous and anxious when there is no real danger around. These are the building blocks for understanding not only why our brain does what it does, but how (healthy) coping skills can positively rewire our brain. Next week, we will build on the fight – flight – freeze response and talk more about why we have anxiety.
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- Cannon, Walter (1915). Bodily changes in pain, hunger, fear and rage.
- Cherry, Kendra (2019). How the Fight or Flight Response Work. The American Institute of Stress. Retrieved from How the Fight or Flight Response Works – The American Institute of Stress
- Cuncic, Arlin (2020). Amygdala Hijack and the Fight or Flight Response. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-happens-during-an-amygdala-hijack-4165944
- Galliano G, Noble LM, Travis LA, Puechl C. (1993). Victim reactions during rape/sexual assault: A preliminary study of the immobility response and its correlates. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 1993;8:109–114. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/088626093008001008
- Harvard Health Publishing (2019). Understanding the Stress Response: chronic activation of the survival mechanism impairs health. Viewed on April 2, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
- Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry, 39(3), 292–304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.08.002. Retrieved from Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor (nih.gov)
- Tan, S. Y., & Yip, A. (2018). Hans Selye (1907-1982): Founder of the stress theory. Singapore medical journal, 59(4), 170–171. https://doi.org/10.11622/smedj.2018043