We've all heard of this one before, and even see it all over, mostly without realizing it! But what is happening to someone who is instinctively responding to stressful situations? Some people automatically jump into a fighting stance and flip the switch from friendly to the enemy without flinching. Others shift into 5th gear and blast off faster than most modern race cars, and some even "freeze" completely and don't budge until they figure out it's time to act or already took the brunt of the blow.

What is it?

The fight/flight/freeze or acute stress response is an automatic reaction/response that takes over when a person suddenly comes under a form of distress. It could be something that causes physical pain, a mental breakdown of some sort, or a sudden rush of emotion, like being frightened, and of course from a psychological threat like having to present a very important presentation in front of people. It is a rush of hormones that are released by your body, to activate a series of reactions, which is intended to help you perform better.

The signs of stress:

It is easy to recognize, and many different signs show up when the response kicks in. Such as:

  • Increased heart rate and fast-paced breathing: Your heart rate increases and the rate of breathing increases to rush more energy and oxygen to strengthen the muscles and brain function.
  • Pale/Flushed Skin: Because blood is now flowing at increased rates through your body, you might become pale or flushed. Another bonus of this is that the clotting ability of your blood increases to help prevent blood loss in the event of injury.
  • Dilated Pupils: Dilated pupils allow for more light to enter the eyes, and that makes for better vision. Better vision helps to see incoming attacks more easily and be more vigilant of your surroundings.
  • Trembling: Trembling is normally seen as bad, but this means that your muscles are ready for action!
  • You don't seem to feel pain: Ever heard someone say they only started to feel the pain after the confrontation? It is not uncommon, and it can be of great advantage when faced with a life-or-death situation.
  • Heightened senses: Our senses are natural and under subconscious control, and under stress, they take over. Some smells might draw your attention, some colors might trigger emotions and the slightest touch on your skin can make you react.
  • Memories can fool around: Depending on the situation, you might remember things clearly, partially, or nothing at all!
  • Uncontrollable bladder: Sometimes your body wants to get rid of extra weight or unnecessary tension. That means, you might urinate yourself or worst-case scenario, find a nasty, smelly surprise waiting for you after the initial brunt of reactions.

Positive stress reactions:


  • Pale Skin
  • Sweating
  • Fast Breathing
  • Watery eyes
  • Trembling / Facial Twitches “grimacing”
  • Major muscle tension
  • Dry mouth & Throat
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Faster pulse
  • Impaired vision
  • Stomach & Bladder stops functioning


  • The subconscious mind takes over “instinct”
  • A dramatic decline in conscious logical thinking
  • Loss of concentration
  • Highly tensed and emotional
  • Rapid brain function

Negative stress reactions:


  • Tunnel vision
  • Blurred vision
  • Magnified vision
  • Loss of vision


  • Selective hearing
  • Hearing is blocked or dampened


  • Heightened fear, anger, resentment & anxiety, etc.
  • Increased cultural sensitivity
  • Reaction due to social conditioning more evident


  • “Freezing” - denial
  • Defecating, urinating, and nausea
  • Fainting
  • Lack of reality perception
  • Daydreaming
  • Mental Memory Flashes
  • Distraction
  • Physical Discomfort
It is common to hear individuals boldly stating how they will react when some form of stressful event occurs, such as a sudden attack. But this is just perceived control, and it can be very dangerous. How you think you would react when not under stress, is not a clear indication of how you would most definitely react when it happens. We tend to exaggerate our abilities under normal conditions, and when suddenly met with aggression or stressors, the lack of control is visible. We can either be over aggressive in non-life-threatening situations, such as someone simply wanting to frighten you, or you might be too calm when it is necessary to be more aggressive, like when facing a life-threatening situation.

The fight/flight/freeze response is an ancient and very important reaction that automatically takes-over. But, not learning how to control it and not differentiating from life-threatening situations and non-life-threatening situations can cause it to run more continuously and unnecessarily. So it is not good to run your mind and body under a constant state of stress! Not only will you be overwhelmed and "jumpy", but you will be unable to identify a real life-threatening situation when it calls for reaction from your flight/fight/freeze response.

You need to learn more about yourself, both mentally and physically. What triggers your response, how can you minimize it and what would be a more preferable response when you are triggered to react. Is it more beneficial for you to relax completely and hand over your possessions when confronted, or will putting up a fight for your life be the sure way to react? The answer will change from situation to situation. So you need to learn more about the types of situations you might have to face.

Another way to gain more control over this natural reaction is through physical training. Fitness can decrease stress overall, by improving heart-rate, better sleep, and increasing endorphins. Also doing practical training, such as first-aid training, any form of martial arts or even regular visualization can greatly improve the way you react under stress.

It is also beneficial to maintain a good amount of social support. You might find that spending time with certain individuals or groups, such as friends, family members or your spouse reduces your stress levels. It might also help you remember why it is that you do what you do and boost your motivation and will power to tackle stressful situations.


It might not seem so significant to try and improve your stress reactions and take more control over your natural responses such as the fight/flight/freeze response. But it can certainly help shave off some very crucial seconds to your reaction time, and help your decision making when you need to think ab=nd act fast, whether you determine it is much better to run or to stand your ground. Every decision will differ from the previous, you might want to react more carefully when you are around family members as to not provoke aggressors, and you might want to react more aggressively and jump into action when you are alone or the situation calls for you to be the aggressor. Studying your own body and its natural responses are great fun and improve your skillsets indefinitely!

Interested to learn more? See the following links: