Fight, Flight, Freeze or Faint

As I specialise in trauma management, I am often asked about how treatment works. The short answer is that often we do not know! The American poet,  John Roedel offers one explanation that is powerful. I comment on ‘types’ of trauma on another page.

There are many leading therapists who get good results and this seems to arise because they are well informed and skilful (one reason why I have written the commentary on Person-centred therapy).

I’ve mentioned a few already, but I will focus here on Peter Levine having revisited some of his material recently. As with Bessel van der Kolk, Peter looks at the responses of our body and he asks how we can work therapeutically with the body in different ways. Both of them, along with most body-orientated psycho-therapists, encourage us to observe our whole body – rather than anyone part of it; to respect heart, brain, gut and lungs, as John puts it.   The small, safe experiment of ‘just noticing‘ can help here. The Body Scan experiment is a good example of an experiment that helps with ‘just noticing‘ although, in some ways, it is rather too complicated. Just noticing is the ability to stop, to attend and to be present in your body, now. What are your thoughts, what are your feelings and what sensations you ‘just notice‘ at this ‘moment.  It’s as simple and difficult as that.  By the way, noticing works well when something is written down about what WAS just noticed. 

The brain responds almost instantly

The different ‘parts’ of our brain and our body work together – in an integrated fashion. It’s still helpful to know what the different parts are – and how they play a part in our overall response.

One thing you may become aware of is  your own flight/fight response. The responses of the lower brain, and the amygdala in particular, as it can help us run or fight in a threatening situation. We can recover and escape, possibly without long-term physical or emotional damage.

However, if we do not run, the primitive circuits of our older and not so smart sibling  can persist and take over. Our ability to function will deteriorate. The potential for post-trauma starts to be set up.

If you can’t fight or flee – you may end up frozen and helpless.  This can manifest in fainting – though I would emphasise there are other reasons why we faint. You have to work through that unpleasant experience if the trauma is not to remain ‘frozen’ in your body. Therapy can help us to find a place for the experience that makes sense – to place it at the ‘back of our mind’ – rather than pre-occupying us by obstructing the front! In the jargon of therapy, this process is called making the implicit memories, explicit.  Implicit memories can hold power over us; whereas bringing the memories out into the open can diffuse that power, and even return it to you as usable insight and wisdom.In his writings, Peter talks about the body as a container that embodies all our experiences – everything we think and feel. Simply appreciating that we live in a body, and not in our heads, starts to give us therapeutic opportunities to build a safe environment. Dan Siegel has a lot to say about this and you may be interested to explore his view of ‘Mind’. This is summarised at the bottom of this page.

The bodily events happening one after another provide an account of what is happening and a visceral exponent that ‘glues’ the event in our matrix memory. The story we tell rather depends on the workings of our younger and smarter sibling, This may provide one part of our recovery but only if the way in which we once felt inside is ‘unglued’ – that is, experienced, not avoided.

Once we regard the body as a source of information, and tune into what is happening in the body at any given moment, we may be able to release ourselves from some of the trauma held in the body.

Some common body responses to high emotion

The body and brain create specific responses in the face of threat or uncertainty

Another way to view this Flight, Fight, Freeze and Faint response is to study the rather complex illustration of the Vagus nerve at Stephen Porges’ account of the Polyvagal system. Polyvagal theory is a large and complex subject to research. It is not essential to grasp it to design and implement a small, safe experiment.  Pages on this website provide a number of relevant leads to work on. It does demonstrate how modern therapy and modern neurology appear to be coming together. It is not a study to take on lightly! However, it may be encouraging to hear Stephen Porges speaking on YouTube.

How can we use our own neurology in practice?

When body scanning, just notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations, as described in the main body of my website. When it feels right, focus on the sensations and stay with the body experience. Start to just notice the intense sensations and feelings as moment-to-moment experiences.

Do not divert or distract yourself with starting something different. To do so would take you into a different set of experiments.

Just noticing these responses in the present can become very freeing, even if they seem to invite freezing as well. However, those feelings can transform themselves on their own – without action or the need to play them out.

Compare this with the mid-20th century approach of Alexander Lowen and Wilhem Reich. They recommended that therapy work with feelings required discharging them in some fashion; by acting them out. Today, we are aware that we are able to stay with the feeling and not necessarily express it outwardly. Feelings can still transform; indeed, the neurology of how feelings grow and subside rather require them to transform.

This leaves the issue: when might acting out work or, indeed, leave us stuck with more to come? When is this acting out, or cartharsis, as it is known, not required for healing to take place?

The general answer is that acting out will work in the here-and-now. When it is ‘situationally appropriate’. That is, when the threat is present and immediate. If I find myself in a circumstance that is potentially overwhelming, then it is usually better to act. The alternative to fight or flight is to freeze. It is this state of freeze that can foster stuckness – like the bunny caught in the headlights. Freeze works best when we need to be anaethesised or prepared for death.

I do some work in the area of domestic abuse. Here I notice how angry people do act and may do damage. Often they will speak remorsefully afterwards, but most often, this belated apology appear non-genuine. Furthermore, they are likely not to feel their anger after the event. They have acted; their feelings are dispersed. That action, anti-social though it may be, is defensive. Instead of just feeling the anger, it is enacted and minimal residual feelings are left. It would be handy if some genuine shame could survive, but with some people this does not happen.

So, in brief, how do you develop a sense of the body as a source of safety, rather than a repository of threat? Everything keeps changing but the body is still here; awareness is still here. We can tap into that.

The body is a source of information – by tuning into what is happening in the body by body scanning we can look our fear in the eye – not as our best friend, maybe, but as a powerful tutor.

The alternative view is rather better expressed by John Roedel.

This is called: my brain and heart divorced.

See his story poem at: on the internet, say, at the Maggie Oliver Foundation.

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What is a nudge

Body responses to high emotion

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