Fight-Flight-Freeze Responses

The fight-flight-freeze response has been receiving lots of attention during recent years because of its role in behavior patterns commonly associated with post-traumatic stress. Some people are unaware that it has been a focus of occupational therapy since the early 1960’s when Jean Ayres began practice-based research on her treatment of children with learning challenges.

Those of us with a long history in occupational therapy have seen our understanding of the fight-flight-freeze response evolve from a pattern associated with challenged populations to one that can be recognized in every one of us. We also now understand that it is activated by social stress rather than only a physical threat.

Fight and flight responses are obvious and easy to identify in our personal lives, in our community news, and on the global stage. The fight response emerges for what we all consider just and unjust reasons. It emerges in bullies and in gang war violence but, it also emerges in people defending their country or their family’s honor. The natural complement is easily perceived as a flight response.

In these same contexts, we can see the bully’s victim, an opposing gang member, or the defender of a different country or family’s honor reacting by matching their opposer’s fight response or being repelled by it in the form of a flight response. The flight response is a natural way to run or move away from physical danger but, it is also the way we subtly learn over time to avoid social or learning challenges that have made us uncomfortable in the past.

The freeze response has taken longer for neuroscientists to understand because it is displayed in both obvious and subtle ways. An obvious form of the freeze response is when a person feels physically threatened but doesn’t fight or flee.

To visualize this response, think of a horror movie in which a victim is approached by a scary creature or a crime show in which a victim is approached by a stalker but, rather than running, they become frozen with fear. The freeze response can be seen in more subtle ways such as when a child is abruptly called on in class.

Behavior patterns that emerge in this situation range from the child self-regulating their freeze response so quickly no one notices, to the child feeling as if their mind has gone blank as they experience the teacher’s and their classmates’ eyes upon them. Children who have strong internal perceptions or feelings are put at a disadvantage in classrooms where teachers believe this freeze response is a sign of weakness rather than a neurological tendency to feel bodily sensations more strongly.