23 May 2022

Anxiety - What is a Flight/Fight/Freeze Response?

What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease. It is something we can all experience from time-to-time, but for some it can be debilitating, affecting every aspect of their lives. Anxiety shows up in the body; we can feel like we are suffocating, experience a tightness in our chest, a fast-beating heart and feeling shaky. It can also be the voice in your head saying, “You can’t do that!”.

Anxiety impacts around 8.2 million people in the UK, with many stating their anxiety started in childhood. Recognising and understanding the signs and symptoms early can have a big impact on the wellbeing of a child. That is why at Innovating Minds, we offer trauma-informed training so our facilitators can help these children understand their anxiety, such as their fight, flight, and freeze response.

Fight or Flight
The fight or flight response is a well-known protective system to perceived danger. This danger can be different for everyone and is triggered by physical or psychological threats, such as a growling dog or preparing to give a speech in front of an audience. For children who experience anxiety, there may not be any specific triggers at all because anxiety is often the continual symptom of these protective responses and the ongoing feeling of stress.

Once our body has identified a sense of ‘danger’, it sends our brain into this fight, flight or freeze response. The physiological effects for a flight or fight response are similar; characterised with an increased heart rate, circulation, breathing, and a release of hormones such as adrenaline. This prepares our body to either stay and fight or turn back and flee. A fight response in a child may portray as signs of disruption, such as shouting, aggression and struggling to wait or sit still. Conversely, a flight or freeze response may be portrayed with avoidance behaviours such as retreating from social situations or refusing to participate in class.

In freeze response, the body has the same physiological reactions such as increased heart rate and an increase in adrenaline, but with no action. This is because the freeze response is the fight/flight response on hold. When a child is in the freeze response, they may dissociate from the goings-on around them and stare blankly at you when you ask them a question.

How you can help
It is often useful to visualise these three bodily responses on a ladder, known as a survival ladder or Polyvagal ladder. At the top of this ladder is ‘safety’ where individuals feel safe, they are socially engaged and connected. The next step down the ladder is the ‘fight or flight response’; this is mobilisation, there is a perceived threat and behaviours to protect an individual will occur. At the bottom of the ladder is ‘freeze’, or immobilisation. Here, there is still a threat, but the body has shut down as it is too overwhelmed. Much like an actual ladder, you can’t get from the bottom to the top without climbing. Therefore, if someone has entered the freeze mode, they must go through the fight or flight response before becoming ‘safe’ again. This can often be why children portray delayed symptoms to stress.

The fight, flight or freeze responses are an automatic response to threats and stress and so their occasional occurrence is unavoidable. However, when these responses are continually engaged such as in individuals who experience anxiety, there can be many harmful effects, both physically and psychologically due to the lack of balance within their nervous system. Being understanding to a child and recognising their behaviour as being a part of their fight, flight or freeze response could be beneficial for the child.

Anxiety can often be seen as the continual expression of these survival responses, so helping a child learn grounding exercises and how to use their body to calm their brain could be very useful. For instance, deep breathing and mindfulness as well as helping to recognise how their body is reacting and how this relates to their survival ladder can yield many benefits for the child.

Learn more
If you wish to learn more, please visit -  https://www.healing-together.co.uk and find out how to become a Healing Together facilitator.


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