What is the Fight-Flight-Freeze (FFF) Response?
Fight or Retreat
In the face of supposed danger, the body responds faster than the rational mind can react. Before your intellect can kick in, fascinating instantaneous changes take place in the body to prepare to fight or retreat such as:
- Muscles are prepared to fight or run. Blood is diverted from toes and fingers to core muscles in the arms, shoulders, and legs.
- The skin acts like an air conditioner. Sweating occurs to prevent the body from overheating and getting sluggish.
- Adrenalin is released and the pancreas secretes sugar to give the body a jolt of energy.
- You need to be light on your feet, so there is a relaxation of abdominal muscles. The digestive and urinary system might need to empty, to ensure the body can be light and fast.
- Pupils dilate which shrinks peripheral vision and allows for straight-ahead vision to keep the focus in front.
- The breath becomes quick and shallow to increase airflow and bring oxygen to the muscles and lungs.
WHAT MOST PEOPLE DON’T KNOW
There is more to the FFF Response than preparing the body to fight or run. When there is a perceived threat, the body might not FIGHT or FLEE but instead FREEZE. Perhaps the body comes to a literal halt, but another way of looking at this is the freezing of emotions. When a threat is perceived sometimes the response is to numb the anxiety.
Freezing is especially true in OCD. The purpose of performing compulsions, including mental acts is to numb anxiety. You might argue compulsions help stop thoughts, but we know that’s OCD talking. Compulsions provide temporary relief and numb the anxiety for a short time. But did you know you can’t isolate one emotion to anesthetize? When you numb anxiety you numb all feelings.
Rusty at Being Human
Numbing becomes deadening to all emotions. You become flat and muted—perhaps depressed. Indifference sets in and you feel stripped of joy or pleasure. Motivation is practically nonexistent. When you spend time with friends and family, you feel detached. It feels like you are on the outside of life rather than “in” it. You become rusty at being human.
Numbing has helped you to survive awful thoughts and feelings, but it is after all, another word for avoidance. Numbing puts a wall between you and the life you want. Stop numbing, and yes, you’ll experience anxiety, but you’ll also feel other emotions like happiness and connectedness.
The Body Responds Faster Than the Rational Mind Can React
When triggered by an obsession, a client with OCD reports: “I’m having trouble breathing” or, “my heart is racing” or “I feel like running.” These are all signs that the body is responding to a perceived threat.
If the client can ride it out, and do nothing to get rid of the anxiety the jolt of adrenalin will dissipate, and the rational mind will win. The brain will make a connection: Just because my body prepares for a threat doesn’t mean the danger is real. When the body goes into the fight-flight-freeze response, it doesn’t say there was actual evidence of risk. The body responds faster than the rational mind can react.
OCD is a fantastic storyteller. If it used facts to tell stories, you wouldn’t pay any attention. You’d be bored. So OCD does whatever it can to captivate you and set off adrenalin. It makes you feel fear and doubt not because it’s out to get you. OCD wants to save you from ruining whatever is precious and sacred to you.
The problem is you don’t need saving. It’s not the rational mind deciphering what needs saving. OCD can’t tell what is dangerous, so it takes a hard “just in case” stance.
- The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response automatically kicks in when there is a perceived threat.
- The body responds to a perceived threat before the rational mind can react.
- Using avoidance or compulsions to numb anxiety suppresses good feelings too.
- OCD is nothing more than a talented storyteller that has no clue about what is or isn’t a true threat. OCD wants your body to live in a “just in case” fight-flight-freeze mode.
Ride the Wave
Notice your anxiety as a physiological response to a perceived threat. Get curious and determine whether your body is preparing to fight, flee or freeze. Is blood diverting from your fingers to your core muscles? Are you sweating? Do you feel like going to the bathroom. Are you feeling nothing? Did you numb?
Thank your body for being so fascinating.
Keep it real. Just because your body goes into FFF it’s not evidence of true danger. Anxiety doesn’t mean something is actually wrong.
OCD prefers you to adopt a “just in case” way of life. So it’s going to use storytelling to get you to do it. Your best bet is to agree with OCD, “Maybe that’s true. Maybe it isn’t. I’m willing to find out.” Resist trying to figure out if the threat is real.
Use your script:
“I notice I’m feeling ____________. I’m worried that:__________. Yes, it is possible that my fear will come true. I would not want this to happen but I can’t control what happens. I need to be in charge (not OCD) so I’m going to accept the risk that [this thing will or has happened]. I’m not going to check or use some magical wand (compulsion) to make sure all is well. I will never know if I do or don’t control outcome. I have to live with this uncertainty.”
Remind yourself to ride it out until the adrenalin fades. Don’t engage in compulsions and you’ll arrive in a non-aroused state quicker.
Maintain a growth-mindset. Never put yourself down as you practice these steps. You’re on this earth to learn. You’re not here to be perfect. Perfection can only be faked. Practice makes…progress.
Remember the Goal of Resisting Compulsions:
- Develop the ability to tolerate “hard” feelings like anxiety.
- Discover you’re stronger than you thought.
- Surrender to the fact you cannot control what happens.
- Accept uncertainty as a way of life.
- Let your guard down and allow feelings of vulnerability.