The Biology of Fear: Fight, Flight, and Beyond
When we sense danger, our bodies are wired to respond. Involuntary signals from our nervous system and brain cause an increase in stress hormones that help prepare us to protect ourselves from the threat. We might notice physical signs including a faster heart-rate, rapid breath, sweating, shaking, or nausea. These are all signs our body is getting ready to respond to the threat in what is typically called the ‘fight or flight’ response, but we have more than those two options.
Observe how squirrels behave when they are crossing a road and a car approaches, and you will see a good example of this response in action. Typically, the animal will stop in its tracks and stay completely still (freeze) until it realizes the better defense is to move out of the way (flight). While this process has a very important purpose when we are actually in physical danger, sometimes the response gets triggered when our brains become conditioned to believe we are unsafe in situations that are not dangerous. This becomes more pronounced if we have an anxiety disorder or history of trauma. For example, if our childhood experiences taught us to avoid an angry parent by staying quiet and agreeable, we might have a fight or flight response at the first sign of conflict as adults.
Identifying Flight or Fight Responses
Fight or flight is more subtle in everyday life, and usually results in a pattern of behavior. Here are how common responses might look like in your life:
Fight: Starting arguments, yelling, lashing out toward others when feeling defensive or ‘attacked’
Flight: Running away or wanting to escape before a conflict can occur, needing to leave the setting during an argument or conflict
Freeze: Shutting down, difficulty speaking, feeling disconnected from surroundings
Fawn: People pleasing, avoiding conflict by going along with things, being ‘good’ and not challenging others
While the biological process that leads to these responses is involuntary, we can learn to change our behavior patterns. This starts with becoming aware of our responses and what triggers us to react in a certain way. Once we have this awareness we can start responding differently. This takes time and is best supported by the help of a licensed mental health professional.
-Laura Gross, LMSW
Laura Gross is a fully licensed social worker. Contact her at:
Marsh Psychology Group: 248-860-2024