Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Fight, flight, freeze system and emotion

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The 'fight, flight, and freeze system' and emotion:
What role does emotion play in the FFFS?

Overview[edit | edit source]

This chapter focuses on the instinctive system of fight, flight, and freeze and the emotions that are directly involved with the elicitation of these responses. These three responses make up a system of instinctual behaviours that protects us from threats and dangers (Crosby, 2008). It is the most basic defense mechanism that deals with threats a human or animal perceives (Gilbert & Gilbert, 2003). The emotions involved with these three responses are: fear, associated with both the fight and flight responses (Berkowitz, 1983; Schauer & Elbert, 2010; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Kambouropoulos et al, 2014), anger, most commonly associated with the fight response (Reeve, 2009; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014), and anxiety, often associated with both the freeze and flight responses (Reeve, 2009; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Schauer & Elbert, 2010). The purpose of the book chapter is to contribute a psychological concept can improve our understanding of emotions[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Not many people understand the processes that they go through when faced with a threat and emotions play a vital role in the FFF system, in turn allowing us to protect ourselves.

The focus questions for this chapter include:

  • What is the fight, flight and freeze system?

This will also cover this system in physiological terms. Furthermore, animal vs. human comparisons will be provided as well as an example of how the FFF system can be counterproductive.

  • What emotions are involved with the FFF system?

In addition to the above questions the theory section will provide an alternate system to the FFF system which was put forward by Taylor et al (2000). Further readings, relevant to this book chapter, will be provided in the 'see also' section for a better understanding of certain concepts provided in this book chapter. A quiz will be administered at the end that tests the main points of the chapter which is the emotions involved with the FFF system.

What is the 'fight, flight or freeze' system?[edit | edit source]

The instinct of fight, flight, and freeze is a system of instinctual behaviours that protects us from physical dangers (Crosby, 2008). When danger is perceived in the environment, the FFF phenomenon is quite useful as it allows us to proceed in ways that minimise or reduce harm to others and ourselves.

Why do we have a FFFS?[edit | edit source]

Fight and flight is possibly the most basic defense mechanism that deals with threats a human or animal perceives (Gilbert & Gilbert, 2003). Individuals need to be able to make multiple perceptions of a threat in order to make the use of the most effective defensive behaviour i.e. if a threat is avoidable; fleeing (flight) is the most logical thing to do (Kambouropoulos, Egan, O'Connor, Staiger, 2014). On the other hand, if a threat is unavoidable, the most likely defensive action is to fight (Kambouropoulos et al, 2014). In brief, freezing occurs when there is a large distance between a subject and a threat, flight occurs when the distance is reduced, fight usually occurs when the distance is eliminated (Schauer & Elbert, 2010).

Fight & flight[edit | edit source]

Often referred to as an 'acute stress response' (Schauer & Elbert, 2010)[grammar?]. In physiological terms, both humans and animals react to threats within the environment with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). When a threatening stimulus is perceived to be a major threat, the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is activated (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). In the first instance, the first instinct will be to try and flee (flight) - if the attempt is unsuccessful, the instinct will then be to try and fight (Berkowitz, 1983; Schauer & Elbert, 2010; Kambouropoulos et al, 2014). Regardless of which instinct is active, the organism is extremely aroused (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). In terms of both fight and flight, sympathetic arousal and sympathetically modulated adrenal release prepares the body for the necessary response i.e. blood pressure elevation, heart rate acceleration, and endorphins are released in order to reduce pain (Schauer & Elbert, 2010).

The following can occur when the sympathetic nervous system activates (Schauer & Elbert, 2010):

  • Reorganisation of the blood supply i.e. decreasing the possibility of blood loss through peripheral vasoconstriction
  • Blood pressure increases through the increased cardiac activity i.e. faster and deeper breathing
  • Perspiration increases in order to lower the body temperature
  • The palms can become moist, this improves the grip of the hands and is better to flee

Furthermore, in anticipation of harm (whether fight or flight response is active), bodily functions that are not necessary at this point in time are stopped e.g. digestion reduces and the bowls immobilise (Schauer & Elbert, 2010)

When arousal has reached a high enough level, the decision to flee or fight begins (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). Fear is the usual emotion experienced at this stage, [grammar?] the symptoms that can be experienced include, but are not limited to (Schauer & Elbert, 2010):

  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Light headedness
  • Blurred vision

Freeze[edit | edit source]

Characterised by 'hyper vigilance' or 'hyper arousal', fear occurs and is then followed by shock (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). Freezing and learned helplessness are responses that occur when other coping responses are unavailable (David & Lyons-Ruth, 2009). This instinct usually occurs before the fight and flight responses, the time period in which it occurs varies[explain?] (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). Often seen as the stage where information is gathered, because the senses sight and hearing are aroused to a higher degree in order to identify a danger or threat (Schauer & Elbert, 2010)[grammar?]. The freeze response also allows the body to respond by activating necessary bodily responses in order to assess the environment and/or further process a stimulus, thereby allowing an individual to prepare for further actions (fight or flight) (Schauer & Elbert, 2010).

The initial reaction to an aversive stimulus involves (Schauer & Elbert, 2010):

  • Motor inhibition (a cease in movement)
  • Focused attention to threat
  • Decelerating heart rate

Further psychological responses include a cardiac acceleration and an increase in the startle reflex.

Animals also demonstrate this pause before acting upon the presence of a threat (fight or flight) (Schauer & Elbert, 2010). When hunted, a prey is more likely to remain 'frozen'. This is due to the fact that the visual cortex and the retina of mammalian carnivores detect shapes through moving objects rather than other factors (i.e., colour). Survival, in some cases, may depend very heavily on an animal's ability to become and remain motionless in order to blend in with the environment, in doing so the carnivores eyes can mistakenly change targets to the next closest moving object (Schauer & Elbert, 2010).

A physiological response[edit | edit source]

The fight and flight component of the FFFS is characterised by physiological responses (Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, & Updegraff, 2000). The pituitary gland, which is regulated by the hypothalamus, regulates the endocrine system - [grammar?] which is involved in hormonal activity (Reeve, 2009). When arousal increases, the sympathetic nervous system activates and supplies the adrenal medulla. This process produces a mass movement of hormones that results in the release of catecholamines, specifically norepinephine and epinephrine, into the blood stream (Taylor et al, 2000; Reeve, 2009). This process is believed to occur in reaction to all kinds of threats i.e. predators, aversive conditions (fire, earthquakes, or tornadoes), or assault (Taylor et al, 2000).

Social issues[edit | edit source]

Although this system allows us to avoid harm, there are cases where it can become an issue. Instinctively, it can present itself unconsciously in situations where it is not required i.e. social environments (e.g. socialising with friends), it is at this point this instinct actually works against us and is counterproductive (Crosby, 2008).


Your boss (an authority figure) enters the room. You have scanned the environment due to his or her presence (this instance, is an example of freezing). Regardless of whether you get along with this person, these are examples of all three instincts occurring and working against you:

  • The fight instinct is not always a physical confrontation; you may instead disagree (within reason) with things he or she has to say, to an extent that may become counterproductive. This 'fight' can be verbal, the confrontation is made when distance has been eliminated - this can affect the workplace environment.
  • The flight instinct (the most common of the three instincts) would take the form of escape and avoidance i.e. not vocalising your thoughts in order to avoid a certain circumstance or consequence, this may go as so far as escaping the possibility of it occurring altogether.
  • The freeze instinct would be, as the name implies, to freeze. Even the most well-spoken and intelligent individuals can experience this behaviour regardless of their ability to speak. As mentioned above, the body goes through certain processes to determine the threat level of the stimulus (in this case, your boss) and deciding whether to flee or fight.

Animals vs. humans[edit | edit source]

Case Study

Animal experiments by Azrin, Ulrich & Hutchinson (as cited in Berkowitz, 1983; p. 1136) demonstrated that two animals, when isolated in a small chamber together and exposed to an aversive stimuli (for example: intense heat, electric shocks, or loud noises), tended to fight more frequently. This study held true across a variety of species, leading various researchers to infer that physical pain is a powerful stimulus in terms of drawing aggression (fight) (Berkowitz, 1993). Others argue that aggression is not the inevitable result when exposed to an aversive stimulus. Whether or not the aggression was exhibited depended heavily upon five factors (Berkowitz, 1983):

  • The possibility of escape from the unpleasant or harmful stimuli
  • The availability of a suitable target
  • The distance between the animal and target
  • The relationship between the animal (after exposed to the aversive stimuli) and its potential victim
  • The animal's learning history

Afflicted animals prefer to run away from danger than to attack an available target. The stimulus, which is aversive in nature, tends to instigate a need to escape (flight) (Berkowitz, 1983).

That is not to say that it will only draw the one response from the FFFS, aversive stimulation evokes both the instigation to flee and fight (fight or flight) depending on the five factors (Berkowitz, 1983)[grammar?]. For example, if the animal had not learned how to avoid (flight) the stimulus, or if the stimulus was designed so that it was impossible to escape (flight), the attack tendency would increase (fight). Therefore, when escape (flight) is impossible, the animals' aggression (fight) would occur. However, if the animal is exposed repeatedly to aversive stimuli in which they cannot escape, displays of both aggression (fight) and defensiveness (flight) would decline and a learned helplessness behaviour pattern would occur (freeze) (Berkowitz, 1983). This decline implicates the possibility of unlearning aversive stimulated violence (Berkowitz, 1983).

This learned aggression from aversive stimulation demonstrates that pain causes stress and the fight component of the FFFS activates to reduce the stress caused by the pain (Berkowitz). These animals' studies showed surprising results. Aversive stimulated monkeys would pull chains that would provide an inanimate object which they could attack as they pleased. Similarly, a rat that was exposed to an aversive stimulus would push a button in order to enter a maze, which contained another rat that they would usually attack.

Similar experiments were conducted to find similarities between these lower order animals and humans. Aversive stimulated aggression seems to be the greatest similarity amongst our species and others (Berkowitz, 1983). The variety of unpleasant stimuli that would increase the frequency of aggressive acts or hostile judgement towards a stranger included:

  • Unpleasant room temperature (too hot or too cold)
  • Information that would be considered frightening
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Disgusting scenes
  • Foul odours

The nature of the stimuli is the same as the ones used on the animals. For humans, it seems that there are more variations of these stimuli that elicit hostility and aggression - but this would just imply that there are species-specific factors that lead to aggression and the like (Berkowitz, 1983).

What emotions are involved in the FFF system?[edit | edit source]

Fear[edit | edit source]

Fear is a basic emotion that refers to a family of emotions i.e. shock, fright, panic, anxiety, worry etc. (Reeve, 2009). It is an emotion that is experienced when an individual interprets a situation and it consists of a danger that is definitely capable of threatening their well being (Reeve, 2009). These dangers/ threats can be either psychological or physical (Reeve, 2009).

Most situations that elicit fear are those, those are in anticipation of harm (Reeve, 2009). The following circumstances can elicit fear (Reeve, 2009):

  • A sense of vulnerability to danger
  • Expectation that one’s coping abilities will be overwhelmed by the perceived danger/threat.
  • Feeling helpless in the face of a threat or danger.

By experiencing fear often, it raises the potential for an individual to learn new coping responses (Reeve, 2009).

What part of the FFFS does fear affect directly?[edit | edit source]

Fear is evident in both fight and flight (Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012). Fear usually compels individuals to defend themselves (Reeve, 2009). Experiencing fear can act as a signal for the body to prepare itself for harm (Reeve, 2009). Fear can elicit the following flight responses (Reeve, 2009):

  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Experiencing nervous tension in anticipation of having to protect the self.

Fear usually drives an individual to either escape or withdraw from the object causing the emotion. If fleeing is not possible, fear motivates coping, as by being quiet and still (freezing) (Reeve, 2009). Only when escape is impossible and the distance between an individual and a threat is eliminated, will the fight response activate (Berkowitz, 1983; Schauer & Elbert, 2010; Kambouropoulos et al, 2014)

Anger[edit | edit source]

Anger is an emotion experienced by all human and animal species alike (Reeve, 2009). Anger is not only the most passionate emotion, but it is also a basic emotion that refers to a family of emotions (Reeve, 2009). These include: hostility, rage, fury, annoyance, frustration etc. (Reeve, 2009; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014). It often occurs when an injustice arises, for example: when restraint, interference, criticism or force is used in a manner that would be considered or perceived as illegitimate - it can be said that anger is present until these injustices are corrected (Reeve, 2009; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014). People who are experiencing anger are usually more sensitive to the unjust actions of others (Reeve, 2009; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014). In this aroused state, effort is directed at overcoming or righting these unjust actions (fight) (Reeve, 2009).

As well as the most passionate emotion, anger is also the most dangerous (Reeve, 2009). When injustices occur, its purpose is to destroy barriers in the environment in order to correct them (Reeve, 2009). But it is interesting to note that (Reeve, 2009):

  • Approximately 50% of anger episodes involve yelling and screaming
  • Approximately 10% of anger episodes lead to aggression.
  • Anger-fuelled temper increases the likelihood of a heart attack.

Acts carried out in a state of anger is usually perceived as a negative aspect this emotion, but contrary to popular belief, anger has positive functionality and these can be seen throughout history e.g. the civil rights movement, women’s rights etc. (Reeve, 2009). Anger, of the positive kind, is almost always the assertive, non-violent expression, rather than the more commonly referred to violent expression (Reeve, 2009).

Only when anger leads to aggression does it produce needless destruction (as aforementioned) and/or injury (Reeve, 2009; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014). This can be displayed in various ways i.e. cursing at/shoving a rival. Otherwise, it can be productive when it (Reeve, 2009):

  • Increases energy levels
  • Increases strength
  • Increases endurance

These three factors heighten in order to allow the angered individual to cope productively with the amount of effort used to correct injustices (Reeve, 2009). Anger usually fades when injustices are corrected (Reeve, 2009).

What part of the FFFS does anger affect directly?[edit | edit source]

Fight is associated with the threat-approach concept that showed high association with anger (Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012). Therefore, anger seems to be heavily associated with the fight component of the FFFS (Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012). According to Reeve (2009), an angry persons strength, energy level and endurance increases in order to allow them to cope productively with the amount of effort required when correcting injustices. It can be said that anger would be more suited to the fight component of the FFFS.

Anxiety[edit | edit source]

Anxiety is secondary emotion, which is apart of a family of emotions that all relate to the basic emotion; fear (Reeve, 2009). Anxiety related symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following (Reeve, 2009):

  • an upset stomach
  • thoughts of failure

What part of the FFFS does anxiety affect directly?[edit | edit source]

There is a specific link between a persons ability to direct their attention and the feeling of anxiety,[grammar?] anxious individuals take longer to switch their attention between a neutral stimulus to an emotional one (Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012). This supports the threat-avoidance concept of anxiety, which is very similar to the flight response (Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012). According to Reeve (2009), a behavioural inhibition system prepares both humans and animals to freeze in the face of threat. Thus anxiety has plays a large role in both flight and freeze (Reeve, 2009; Schauer & Elbert, 2010).

Theories[edit | edit source]

Tend or befriend[edit | edit source]

The tend or befriend hypothesis postulates that 'fight or flight' may be more relevant to male responses to stress, whereas female responses to stress may be of a different nature (David & Lyons-Ruth, 2005; Taylor, Klein, Lewis, Gruenewald, Gurung, & Updegraff, 2000). This hypothesis also postulates that females have likely developed different or alternative behavioural responses to stress i.e. tending and befriending (Taylor et al, 2000). The basis is that females must protect oneself and their offspring thereby requiring them to develop an alternate response. In times of stress, a female is unlikely respond with fight or flight as it can put the safety of her and her offspring in jeopardy (Taylor et al, 2000). Instead, a female may respond by 'tending' by blending in to the environment whilst caring for her offspring (Taylor et al, 2000). The other response is known as 'befriending', which requires selective affiliation within a social group. The assumption is that by creating a network of associations, in times of stress, the group can provide protection for the female and her offspring.

Oxytocin (a hormone associated with bonding) plays a large role in the tend and befriend stress response (Taylor et al, 2000; Reeve, 2009). This provides an understanding as to why, in times of stress, people seek comfort in friends or social groups (Taylor et al, 2000; Reeve, 2009).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Fear is often associated with which FFF response?

Both A and B

2 Anxiety is often associated with which FFF response?

Both A and C

3 Anger is often associated with which FFF response?

Both B and C

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The instinct of fight, flight, and freeze make up a system of instinctual behaviours that protects us from threats and dangers (Crosby, 2008). It is the most basic defense mechanism that deals with threats a human or animal possesses (Gilbert & Gilbert, 2003). The emotions involved with these three responses are fear, associated with both the fight and flight responses (Berkowitz, 1983; Schauer & Elbert, 2010; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Kambouropoulos et al, 2014), anger, most commonly associated with the fight response (Reeve, 2009; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Ariyabuddhiphongs, 2014), and anxiety, often associated with both the freeze and flight responses (Reeve, 2009; Kunimatsu & Marsee, 2012; Schauer & Elbert, 2010). The purpose of the book chapter is to contribute a psychological concept can improve our understanding of emotions. Emotions play a large role in the FFF system, in turn allowing us to protect ourselves.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Ariyabuddhiphongs, V. (2014). Anger concepts and anger reduction method in Theravada Buddhism. Spirituality In Clinical Practice, 1(1), 56-66. doi:10.1037/scp0000003

Berkowitz, L. (1983). Aversively stimulated aggression: Some parallels and differences in research with animals and humans. American Psychologist, 38(11), 1135-1144. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.38.11.1135

Crosby, G. (2008). Fight Flight Freeze. Google Books. Retrieved 25 October 2014, from

David, D. H., & Lyons-Ruth, K. (2005). Differential attachment responses of male and female infants to frightening maternal behavior: Tend or befriend versus fight or flight?. Infant Mental Health Journal, 26(1), 1-18. doi:10.1002/imhj.20033

Gilbert, P., & Gilbert, J. (2003). Entrapment and arrested fight and flight in depression: An exploration using focus groups. Psychology & Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 76(2), 173.

Kambouropoulos, N., Egan, S., O’Connor, E. J., & Staiger, P. K. (2014). Escaping threat: Understanding the importance of threat sensitivity in social anxiety. Journal Of Individual Differences, 35(1), 47-53. doi:10.1027/1614-0001/a000126

Kunimatsu, M., & Marsee, M. (2012). Examining the Presence of Anxiety in Aggressive Individuals: The Illuminating Role of Fight-or-Flight Mechanisms. Child & Youth Care Forum, 41(3), 247-258. doi:10.1007/s10566-012-9178-6

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding motivation and emotion (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Schauer, M., & Elbert, T. (2010). Dissociation following traumatic stress: Etiology and treatment. Zeitschrift Für Psychologie/Journal Of Psychology, 218(2), 109-127. doi:10.1027/0044-3409/a000018

Taylor, S. E., Klein, L., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411-429. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.107.3.411