There is a stranger in your house. You can hear the noise, but you are not sure who it is, or what they want. Without thinking anything, your body is already gearing up for some sort of action. Your neurochemistry is subtly changing, and your autonomic nervous system is firing rapidly, and all of this is taking place in less than the blink of an eye. What you are experiencing is the fight/flight/or freeze reflex to stress.
The fight/flight/or freeze response is an inherent trait that almost all humans have. It was a response that, likely millions of years ago, served our distant ancestors well, and helped keep them alive and safe, which led to that specific trait being passed down to all of us through the ages. During this near instantaneous reaction, the body quickly gears up to react in some way in order to ensure its survival.
The fight/flight/or freeze response does not have to be taught, and so long as a person’s body is functioning relatively normally, they can experience this stress response. When presented with an immediate stressor, the body releases adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. The heart rate elevates, and blood is directed away from the organs and toward the arms and legs to enable fighting or fleeing. Less energy is expended on functions such as thought and digestion because all of the body’s capabilities are mobilized to respond to stress. This explains why the response causes immediate reaction with no thought required, or likely possible; the energy the body is providing is going to act, not to think. The brain is effectively left out of this loop.
While this was an effective evolutionary reaction to danger and threats when we as a species fought for survival, now it is often not a useful response when a person is getting agitated in a traffic jam or has to speak in front of a conference.
The fight/flight or freeze stress response is what activates when the brain identifies a threat, and that threat can be anything, even things that are not a physical danger, like public speaking. The fight/flight/freeze response does not easily differentiate between actual threat, like the above example of someone breaking into your home, and a perceived threat, such as public speaking.
The fight/flight/freeze response is at its most helpful during short, intense periods of danger.
When a person experiences this response over a prolonged period of time, or repeatedly, it can lead to health problems, including an anxiety disorder. The key to effective treatment is in finding ways to shut off this response when it is not needed. A qualified mental health professional can guide you through diagnosis of an anxiety disorder and recommend appropriate treatment for your unique situation. Many individuals are finding success through online therapy services due to their convenience and affordability.