How to Handle the Fight or Flight Response

Years ago, my daughter and I went to the Seattle Science Center and went in a simulator of a boxcar. It’s kind of like you see in those vintage gold mine photos, like a mountain mine ride going down steep mountainsides, barely on the rails and out of control. 

The “boxcar” would shake and bounce and jolt as your eyes were glued to the scene simulator in front of you. We were hanging on for dear life, it was so real. 

There were about six of us in the simulator, and suddenly this little boy screamed, “We’re all going to die!” 

Obviously, we didn’t, but we did experience the janky railroad cart, hairpin turns, tunnels, and moments of going off the rails. 

Our thoughts about that situation were what created the actual response.

Today I want to share some experiences I’ve had with the stress-induced response of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, and offer that there is a fifth one that I have experienced. It has made such a huge difference in how I deal with that adrenaline rush. I’m actually kind of surprised that it’s not considered along with the rest of these. It even starts with an F.

Here are the four that we typically experience with this type of stress response:

  • Fight: facing any perceived threat aggressively.
  • Flight: running away from the danger.
  • Freeze: the inability to move or act when faced with a threat.
  • Fawn: acting to avoid conflict by “pleasing and appeasing” others. 

I’m not a psychologist so I’m not going to go into the anatomy of the response. I’m just sharing my experience and how I’m able to move through it by using a fifth response. 

These are all very common responses to anything that is outside our comfort zone. If we don’t understand these reactions and don’t allow ourselves to work through it, the stress will get the best of us and lower the quality of our lives, or at least keep us from creating our best lives in the short time we have here. 

Of course, if you don’t want to leave that comfort zone, that is perfectly fine.

This episode is for the person who clearly wants to create something but making it happen is outside their comfort zone. When they think about it and actually know the next step they need to take, they go into a state of fight or flight and their brain is shouting, “We’re all going to die!”

I’ve been experiencing this response in almost every area of my life. But for the first time, I’m actually working through it instead of running back into my comfort zone or settling for a feeling of constant, low-grade anxiety. I’ve actually gotten comfortable with that feeling because it’s been my default to wake up with a feeling of anxiety, but enough is enough.

I could also fight by self-sabotage, or by going out of my way to avoid the thing I really want.

Instead, I use the fifth response: “feeling.

Choosing to feel. For me, this option offers itself for just a split second so I have to choose it quickly once I’m triggered by something. This will sound a little bit like the freeze response but it’s much different. 

It’s all about intentionally engaging with the feelings you are having, not reacting to them but feeling them completely and deeply. To actually reach out and touch them, observe them, stay still, silent…for long enough to realize you’re not going to die. 

Then you can respond with a sense of presence and intention.

You may feel exactly like you’re going to die but you’re not. Here’s what I discovered; this is my experience, anyway. And I’m still in it so I can speak very clearly about it. 

When you choose to stay still (not freeze), you engage with the actual feeling in your body. For me it feels like these big waves of sadness, joy, possibility; it feels like an opening up; it feels raw and beautiful and ugly all at the same time. It’s pretty freaking wild. 

It’s kind of like going to an opera. You know, in movies you see that character in the balcony, often a tough guy or a cold-hearted person. They just start crying. I think that is what is happening – they’re releasing that fight or flight response and just really feeling into it. 

It’s only when I start attaching thoughts to those feelings that it becomes a problem. 

So, it’s that moment of choosing not to react. Again, don’t confuse this with the freeze response. 

You actually choose to not react and instead just be still and feel whatever you’re feeling until you get to that place where you realize you’re not going to die. Keep feeling it for however long it needs to be there. It’s not going to hurt you. Once you pass through, you will be able to continue on whatever journey it is that you’re on.  

You might only make it a couple of blocks before the fight or flight response comes up again. That’s okay. Embrace it. Pretend you’re at the opera and just observing and taking it all in; ride the waves of whatever comes up. It’s actually an amazing experience if you can allow yourself to have it. 

I just really wanted to share that this week, and hopefully whoever needs to hear this message will so that they can finally get to the other side and create their best life and work to share with the world.

Thanks for listening!