'Fight or flight' response
The 'fight or flight' response is how people sometimes refer to our body's automatic reactions to fear. There are actually 5 of these common responses, including 'freeze', 'flop' and 'friend', as well as 'fight' or 'flight'.
The freeze, flop, friend, fight or flight reactions are immediate, automatic and instinctive responses to fear. Understanding them a little might help you make sense of your experiences and feelings.
How our bodies respond to danger
We usually experience fear when we sense we are in danger. When our brains alert our bodies to the presence of danger, our bodies respond automatically.
For example, to prepare us to deal with immediate danger, our bodies often:
- Speed up our heart rate and breathing, to increase the oxygen and blood going to our muscles.
- Tighten our muscles, ready for use if needed.
- Deactivate bodily functions that aren't immediately important, like digestion.
- Sweat, so we don't get too hot.
- Release adrenaline, to give us energy.
- Release cortisol, to relieve pain. This can also have the effect of blocking rational thinking, which is why in times of extreme stress and fear, we sometimes feel our heads are cloudy or that we can't concentrate.
Fight, flight, freeze, flop, friend
Because we hear a lot about 'fight or flight', we can sometimes feel disappointed, frustrated or even angry with ourselves that when we were in a situation of extreme fear or danger, we didn't experience superhuman strength or speed to struggle or run off.
But the other three common reactions to fear and danger - freeze, flop and friend - are just as instinctive as fight or flight, and we don't get to choose which ones we experience in the moment.
All five responses are our bodies' automatic ways of protecting us from further harm and surviving a dangerous situation:
- Fight: physically fighting, pushing, struggling, and fighting verbally e.g. saying 'no'.
- Flight: putting distance between you and danger, including running, hiding or backing away.
- Freeze: going tense, still and silent. This is a common reaction to rape and sexual violence. Freezing is not giving consent, it is an instinctive survival response. Animals often freeze to avoid fights and potential further harm, or to 'play dead' and so avoid being seen and eaten by predators.
- Flop: similar to freezing, except your muscles become loose and your body goes floppy. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what's happening to you. Your mind can also shut down to protect itself.
- Friend: calling for a 'friend' or bystander for help, for example by shouting or screaming, and/or 'befriending' the person who is dangerous, for example by placating, negotiating, bribing or pleading with them. Again, this is not you giving your attacker consent, it is an instinctive survival mechanism.
Memory and triggers
Sometimes when we are experiencing and responding to extreme fear or danger, our memories are not processed and stored in the usual way.
When we experience a traumatic event, our brain often stores the memory based on what we are feeling and sensing at that time. When our brain then recognises similarities between our present situation and our past trauma (e.g. a colour, smell or noise), it can activate the fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend response, even if we're not currently in danger. We call this being triggered, and it can be a common experience for people who've been through the trauma of sexual abuse, rape or any kind of sexual violence.
This can cause:
It can be helpful to try and remind yourself at these times that you are not in present danger. You are safe. Your brain has just recognised a similarity between your present and your past trauma and triggered your body to react.
Grounding techniques can help you manage responses to being triggered. Learn more about grounding.