The Fight & Flight Response (with a Halloween twist)

The fight & flight response

I am probably going to talk quite a bit about the body’s fight & flight response throughout my blogs, so I thought it would be helpful to explain what I’m talking about!

In keeping with the season, I will use Halloween-based examples.

The fight & flight response (or flight, flight & freeze as it is sometimes known) is your body’s physical response to danger, such as the zombie apocalypse or marauding werewolves.

In evolutionary terms, it is a very old response and it is dealt with by an old part of the brain.

It involves a set of physical changes which have evolved to help us to run away faster from physical danger (such as a scary witch) or to give us a burst of strength (for example, if we need to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart).

Handy, right?


What kind of physical changes?

When you are in the fight & flight response, there are a number of physical changes taking place. Some of them feel very obvious and some of them, less so.

Here is a selection of just a few of the changes that can occur:

  • Heart rate increases
  • Blood pressure increases
  • Breathing becomes faster and more shallow
  • Blood diverts to large muscles for running or fighting and away from extremities and the digestive system. (You don’t need to eat your apple when you are running away from a mummy)
  • Peripheral vision broadens


This is all very useful when we need to respond to a physical threat.


The freeze response

Sometimes, when there is a physical danger it makes more sense to stay very still and quiet and to wait until the threat passes.

This can sometimes result in feeling frozen, rather than the urge to escape or to fight.

For example, in the event of the zombie apocalypse, you may be able to outrun them for a time…

You may be able to fight a few of them off…

But it may be a better option to stay very still and quiet and hope they don’t notice you as they are shuffling past in their search for human brains.


So what is the catch?

Your body’s fight & flight response can respond to any perceived threat.

This means that the threat doesn’t necessarily need to be a physical one, such as being chased by Frankenstein’s Monster.

It can be a social threat, a financial threat, or even a completely imaginary threat, and your body will react as though it can run away from it, fight it or stay very still and hope it goes away.

The physical changes can still take place just at the thought of a threat, even if there is no physical danger in front of you.


If you are worried about being judged negatively in a presentation you have to deliver…

If you are imagining a job interview going really badly…

If you have a deadline coming up and don’t think you can meet it…

Your body gears you up for running, fighting or freezing.


Meanwhile, you are sitting at work or at home feeling your heart pounding, your breathing becoming faster, your muscles feeling tense and generally feeling the physical symptoms of anxiety.

Not so handy.


The rest & digest response


You can think of the rest & digest response as the opposite of the fight & flight response.

It is associated with being calm and relaxed.

When we are in this response we are better able to digest our food because our blood has not been diverted away from the digestive system.

In the rest & digest response you would expect:

  • Normal heart rate and blood pressure
  • Slower, deeper breathing
  • Able to digest food
  • Normal peripheral vision


The good news

The rest & digest response can also be triggered by our thoughts.


If you picture a beautiful place…

If you engage with happy memories…

If you remember times you have felt close and connected with others…

Your body gets ready to relax and you feel calmer.

Very handy.


You can also encourage your rest & digest response by using breathing techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation techniques such as guided relaxation.



Need a little help?

Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing is launching guided relaxation sessions and wellbeing workshops in Jan 2019!

Until then, the Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing blog will be full of tools and tips to increase wellbeing!


Lemon Squeezy makes wellbeing easy!


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I am a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and EMDR therapist, mum of 2 awesome children and founder of Lemon Squeezy Wellbeing! I offer wellbeing workshops and guided relaxation sessions to workplaces in Bradford, Calderdale and Kirklees.

4 thoughts on “The Fight & Flight Response (with a Halloween twist)

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