What is Fight, Flight or Freeze?

Living with addiction and mental illness, we are no strangers to emotional stress, trauma and anxiety. How we cope, what kinds of fear responses we have, has a lot to do with our body’s nervous system and how it responds to stressors. When we have been hurt or traumatized, the energy of that pain gets trapped in the nervous system until it is addressed, examined and healed. When something triggers us, such as a particularly stressful event or interaction, our system can become totally overwhelmed. It can go into a kind of shock, where we have strong mental, emotional and physical reactions.

Some of us will become paralyzed by the shock, and we will feel like our minds stop working, our bodies freeze, and we are unable to make sense of things. We can feel totally overwhelmed, sad, confused and lost. We can find ourselves unable to act or make decisions. We’re frozen, with the trigger having totally incapacitated us. This fear response can be particularly debilitating. We can feel our depression and anxiety mounting but feel powerless to do anything about it. We can feel as though we’re weak and cowardly, unable to cope with the burden of our emotional challenges.

While some of us freeze as a fear response, others of us are prompted to fight. We’re filled with fear and panic, anger, and even rage. The triggering stressor can be anything from an offensive comment to a traumatic injury. Regardless of whether it is a small or large trigger, we can react in similarly drastic ways. We can be driven to lash out at other people. We can find ourselves being unkind, hostile, even abusive. We haven’t learned how to take our fear and anger and manage them in healthy ways. We haven’t developed healthy coping skills for our difficult thoughts and emotions. We fight other people, and internally we are fighting ourselves.

When we are overwhelmed, some of us instinctively want to run away. We’re so afraid of whatever has triggered us that we want desperately to avoid it. We’re afraid of feeling the weight of all the accompanying feelings. We feel shock, hopelessness, shame and despair, so we run. We are often in denial and suppressing our true emotions. We don’t have safe spaces in which to share our intimate thoughts and feelings. When we don’t feel comfortable or safe where we are, we want to run to safety. We run to our addictions, to our unhealthy relationships, and to our other toxic coping mechanisms.

Our bodies can continue these responses, and stay in these heightened states, until we address the underlying issues at the root. Until we examine our trauma and heal from it, we may never have healthy responses to stress and other challenges, and we can continue to suffer.

Riverside Recovery is committed to helping you get back the life you love. Our treatment programs include multiple forms of therapy, family workshops and mindfulness-based relapse prevention education. Call (800) 871-5440 for more information.