3 Tips For Changing A Fight-Flight-Freeze Instinct


By Bea Mackay, Ph. D.

We all have different ways we react to stressful situations. For example, when someone directs anger towards you, your instinct might be to fight back and protect yourself—or maybe you feel like leaving the room (flight) because you are uncomfortable.

  • Do you fight?
  • Do you leave the space (take flight)?
  • Do you freeze in your space without knowing what to do?

If the angry person is your boss, you might want to hide (freeze) from embarrassment or fear of being fired.

These reactions (fright, flight, freeze) can happen because stressful situations evoke emotions, expectations, and uncomfortable sensations in the body. How can we process our emotions during these stressful times?


Don’t just survive — thrive emotionally

In all the species, basic survival methods have become instinctual—built into the DNA over thousands or millions of years. The organisms that survived passed on their genes to the next generation, and so on.

These survival behaviours are so ingrained in human DNA that people’s bodies and minds behave as though their fears are life-threatening even though they are most likely not.


Here are three steps to help you process your stress response—not just react


STEP ONE—Become Aware

Awareness is the first step in changing emotional and physical habits. Taking time to recognize uncomfortable sensations in your body is an important step.

For example, when someone feels anxious and they don’t take the time to recognize this feeling, they can drag this feeling on through the day. This feeling can affect your mind flow, muscles, posture, blood pressure, etc. We cannot process feelings/sensations if we don’t take the time to feel the discomfort.

This discomfort can be a headache, shoulder tension, stomach issues, or any specific body sensation that emerges when emotional stress takes over. Become aware of these sensations in your body the next time your emotions take hold of you.


STEP TWO—Try Not to Analyze

People are strongly motivated to understand why and how they came to feel what they feel. Trying to understand this may even evoke positive change.

However, understanding alone does not induce change because people do not know what else to do; they often get stuck analyzing and rethinking with the hope/intent to get the change they seek. What they do not know is that understanding is not necessary for change.         

To shift from thinking to sensing, you need to interrupt the thoughts and focus on the sensations in the body. 

Typically, people do not want to address unpleasant emotions because the sensations/feelings might be intense.

The sensations/feelings that are not processed build up over time and highjack personal energy, which serves in managing our emotions. This managing, or analyzing, can be exhausting and can affect our health and relationship with ourselves and others.

Catching yourself in the act can lead to different neural pathways and new ways of being.


STEP THREE—Process Emotions, Breathe

If an emotion is not allowed to flow, it will build up. It takes personal energy to block or stop the flow of emotion. Eventually, something will give. The person will either live a limited life or have an emotional breakdown; they will either implode or explode, cry, or have outbursts of anger over tiny incidents, such as spilled milk.

This emotional blockage leads to exhaustion and an inability to function, which is often what a mid-life crisis involves. A person’s way of operating in the world developed over time no longer works, but they do not yet have a new way of being; therefore, they stay the same.

They use so much energy to manage their emotions that there is little energy left to function in daily life. Processing these sensations helps to promote emotional freedom and personal growth.

Personal growth leads to healthy relationships.


Sensations come in waves.

Breathe through the waves.

Breathe through the sensations.


By breathing through the waves of sensations (deep, slow breaths), personal energy will realign and flow in the same direction.

Sometimes, during this shift, the biggest temptation is to avoid feeling the sensations (a twinge, some nausea, a slight headache, etc.) and immediately shift back to thoughts to figure out why you feel this way.

However, it does not matter why! It also does not matter who, what, when, where, or how. What matters is that they are having these sensations and need to stay with them.


What is, is.


Thriving Emotionally

When we stay with the sensations and breathe into them, we process them; we create new neural pathways that precipitate new sensations, and therefore, we evolve emotionally and create healthy and productive change.

As we reconnect with our bodies, we feel more connected to ourselves. When we connect to ourselves, we feel more connected in relationships.

To live happy and healthy lives, one needs to thrive emotionally, not just survive. Next time you sense an uncomfortable feeling, take the time to acknowledge your feelings/sensations and breathe through them.

Comments are closed.