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Explaining the healthy stress behaviours of fight, flight and freeze

When working with clients, and in particular within the business world, I often hear “I do not feel stressed, I am not the anxious type, nothing easily threatens me.”

Whilst I am interested in and respectful of my client’s self-image, what they are proclaiming is that their brain – the finest tuned threat detector ever – has stopped working. That they’ve managed to turn it off.

In this scenario, the person who is so energetically telling me not to bother exploring their stress would actually not be living.

Granted, we may have a great level of internal knowledge of self and consciousness. However, this is very complex and in order to be able to manage our stress optimally we need to acknowledge our stress response and then set our intention.


Our body does what it does best.

Our body keeps us alive, with or without our approval.

I fear we often confuse mind, brain and body as being distinct entities which, depending on the epistemological framework we adhere to, rule over each other.

The truth is much more complicated; our behaviour stems from the intricate interplay between our body, mind and brain which, to make things even more nuanced, are in a permanent relationship with the various and ever-changing environments we find ourselves in.

What does this mean?

Well, we all have the internal physiological processes of stress

These are flight, fight and freeze, which are innate behaviours.

But which one is used and when? This is different across species and it depends on the situation or environment we are in.

Scientists debate the categorising of these responses: whether they are active (flight, fight) or suppressed behaviours (freeze). In his book The psychology of fear and stress, Gray (1971) suggested that we use freezing during the anticipation of danger. Yet when we are right in the danger zone we escape or fight.

Whilst this seems to be an appealing explanation it might not be the end of the debate. After all, some animals freeze when encountering, rather than only when anticipating, danger – and do so very successfully in terms of their survival. 

Stress is a physiological process. One that unfolds under our conscious radar, regardless of our self-image.

Now the question arises – what to do with all this “ready to go” energy?