Coping with Stress and Anxiety: Fight, Flight or Freeze?

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demands placed on them. Our increasingly busy, complex and demanding lifestyles sometimes have us feel out of control. We feel anxiety builds as we feel powerless to make the changes to gain the right balance between work, relationships and leisure activities. We worry about money, health, what people think of us, how we look, getting older and not having enough time.

The key point is that we think the demands and pressures come from outside of ourselves. We feel threatened and our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response is triggered.

This anxiety and fear exist for a reason. Humans evolved to have a fight, flight, or freeze response to alert us to danger. It helps us to act in stressful situations, but the results do not always work in our favour. The physical response can vary — you might act impulsively (fight), escape (flight) the situation or freeze up. Many of my clients suffer from social anxiety and speak to me of feeling this type of intense physiological response (fight, flight or freeze) when interacting with, or in front of, other people. Their brains trigger a response meant to help them in life-threatening situations for ones that aren’t actually dangerous and this can be very challenging as it inhibits their progression at work and in relationships.

Common ‘fight’ behaviours include:

  • becoming overly competitive while anxious
  • adjusting body language to appear strong and stable (broadening your shoulders, keeping your chin up)
  • overly preparing for an stress/anxiety-provoking event like a presentation or small talk
  • snapping at people while anxious or stressed.

Common ‘flight’ behaviours include:

  • leaving the room to wash dishes or go to the bathroom (even if you don’t want or need to)
  • giving an excuse to leave early from stress/anxiety-provoking interactions/social/work events
  • changing the topic of conversation from one that is stress/anxiety-provoking
  • pretending to take a phone call to walk away
  • stopping an activity that is stress/anxiety-provoking
  • adjusting body language to protect or hide your body (like folding your arms or closing in your posture)

Common ‘freeze’ behaviours include:

  • blanking out (having your mind go completely blank)
  • clamming up (not knowing what to say or being able to speak)
  • physical shutdown or even fainting

If this sounds like you, you are not alone, many people can pin point these behaviours. The result over time can become very harmful. Over a prolonged period physical and emotional health can deteriorate, resulting in health risks that can be life threatening.

How can we recognise stress and anxiety?

The effects and symptoms of stress are many and vary greatly between individuals.

Some of the effects are sweating, cold extremities, ruddy complexion, digestive discomfort, increased sensory reactions, raised breathing and heart rate, impaired thinking and memory functions, etc.

What you can do to reduce stress and anxiety:

Identify stress/anxiety-provoking thoughts and ground them in reality. Try to identify what exactly you’re afraid will happen. We often automatically assume the worst case scenario will manifest. Once you identify your fears or anxious thoughts, you can ask whether they are actually true, or if you might be jumping to conclusions and making up a story.

Ask yourself “What would I tell a friend in this situation?” Asking this question will help you to view the situation objectively, instead of through an emotional lens. Even asking others for advice might give you perspectives that you haven’t considered before.

Alternatively, external action and support through professional coaching will benefit and reduce the cause of stress and anxiety.

If you suffer from any form of stress or anxiety, get in touch and begin your coaching journey with me. Stress and anxiety management coaching is an important step in the right direction. My coaching will help you:

  • Learn proven relaxation techniques
  • Adopt healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety
  • Become aware of the signs of stress and anxiety
  • Maintain boundaries and learn to say no
  • Stop being a perfectionist
  • Manage your time effectively

Graham Kean, MA (Psych), MMC (IAC)