Fight, Flight, or Freeze Responses in Trauma and PTSD

Fight, Flight and Freeze responses Related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Trauma and its effects are bound by the story of what happened to us, core emotions of fear, anger or sadness and a loss of control, sense of overwhelm and helplessness.

In terms of the nervous system – it is a breach of boundaries of the capacity to hold, contain and process – a break of the normal flow of resilience between activation and relaxation.

Simply put the nervous system has an ‘active’ part, that stimulates the brain and the muscular-skeletal system, and a ‘relaxation’ part, that stimulates the digestive system and immune system.


When healthy boundaries have been breached, due to trauma, we pendulate between hyper-activation, fight and flight responses, and hypo-activation or freeze response. Each with their own set of distinct symptoms.

  • Stuck on ‘ON’ – Fight-flight, hyper-activation symptoms: anxiety, panic, hyperactivity, exaggerated startle, inability to relax, restlessness, hyper-vigilance, digestive problems, emotional flooding, chronic pain, sleeplessness, hostility, rage.
  • Stuck on ‘OFF’ – Freeze, hypo-activation symptoms: depression, flat affect, lethargy, deadness, exhaustion, chronic fatigue, disorientation, disconnection, dissociation, complex syndromes, pain, low blood pressure, poor digestion.

It is the uncompleted biological process of hyper-activation without having had the possibility to escape or fight that kicked in the freeze response as an ultimate survival strategy. As Peter Levine puts it: ‘It is as if our instinctive survival energies are all dressed up with no place to go’.

A major part of successful trauma work is to address the body and the nervous system to bring these processes to a natural completion.

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