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Understanding Anxiety: The Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Flop Response

Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes, whether that is before an important job interview, an exam or in response to worries about meeting new people, germs or something bad happening to those we love. Anxiety is a self-protective system designed to help us survive.  In our brain, an area called the amygdala sets off an alarm system in response to perceived danger. Our amygdala sends messages around our body to prepare; for example, we might get a racing heart as it pumps oxygen to our big muscles groups. This system is needed if we might walk in front of a fast car, or if we are being chased by a tiger. In that way anxiety is our brain's way of telling us we are in danger, and trying to help us! The way our bodies and minds respond to anxiety can vary widely. These responses are known as the Fight, Flight, Freeze  or Flop response. Understanding the symptoms of anxiety can help you to understand your child's reactions, and understand how to help them.

The Fight Anxiety Response

The fight response is the body's way of preparing to confront a threat head-on. This reaction involves a surge of adrenaline, increased heart rate, and heightened alertness, all of which prepare us to defend ourselves.

child anxiety

Signs of the Fight Response:

  • Clenched fists or jaw

  • A feeling of anger or irritability

  • A desire to argue or physically confront the source of anxiety

  • A sensation of being on edge or hyper-alert

While the fight response can be useful in situations where immediate action is necessary, it can also be detrimental if overused, leading to unnecessary conflicts or aggressive behaviour.

The Flight Anxiety Response

The flight response is the body's instinct to avoid danger by running away or avoiding the threat. This response also involves adrenaline and an increase in heart rate, but instead of preparing to fight, the body gears up to escape.

child anxiety

Signs of the Flight Response:

  • A strong urge to leave the situation or avoid it altogether

  • Rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing

  • Sweating and trembling

  • Restlessness or fidgeting

Flight can be a helpful response when we need to remove ourselves from harmful situations, but over time, avoidance can lead to missed opportunities and increase anxiety over time, as we never learn that nothing bad happens, and that we can cope.

The Freeze Anxiety Response

The freeze response occurs when the body decides that neither fight nor flight is viable, causing a person to become stuck or frozen. This reaction can be likened to a deer in headlights, where the body temporarily shuts down as a protective measure.

child anxiety

Signs of the Freeze Response:

  • Feeling stuck or unable to move

  • Numbness or a sense of detachment from the environment

  • Difficulty speaking or thinking clearly

  • A sense of time slowing down

While freezing can sometimes protect us in dangerous situations by making us less noticeable, it can also lead to feelings of helplessness and frustration when we're unable to take action.

The Flop Anxiety Response

Less well-known than the other three, the flop response is characterised by a complete submission or collapse in response to a threat. This is often seen in prey animals and can be a way to avoid further harm by appearing non-threatening.

child anxiety

Signs of the Flop Response:

  • Complete physical collapse

  • Feeling of submission or giving up

  • Difficulty maintaining muscle control

  • Emotional numbness or disconnection

The flop response can be a last-resort survival mechanism, but in humans, it can manifest as a profound sense of powerlessness or a tendency to submit in situations where assertiveness is needed.

The fight, flight, freeze, and flop responses are deeply ingrained in our biology, designed to protect us from harm. By understanding these reactions, we can develop strategies to manage them and reduce their impact on our lives. Be kind to yourself, these responses are natural and part of our evolutionary heritage. If anxiety is having a significant impact on your life and you would like support, please reach out to our team at The Lotus Psychology Practice.

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