Hope For The Journey

A Trauma Therapist
Talks About How
Stress Responses
Show Up in
Everyday Life

Have you ever wondered why you agree to do things you really don’t want to do? Or why you’re quick to get defensive at the slightest hint of conflict? Or why your mind goes blank and you shut down in stressful situations? If any of these sound like you, you can probably blame your stress responses.


We typically hear the words “fight,” “flight,” “freeze,” and “fawn,”  in the context of life-threatening situations, but what about in everyday life? Do our brains work the same way in stressful situations at work, school, and home as they do in life-threatening situations? Absolutely. 


What Are Stress Responses?

Stress responses (or trauma responses) are our brain’s way of protecting us. Our stress responses automatically react to things in our environment that are actually dangerous or threatening, or are perceived as dangerous or threatening. The parts of the brain responsible for our stress responses aren’t very good at telling the difference between danger and stress, so whether we’re being chased by a bear, or getting a message from our boss that says, “Come to my office…” our brains and bodies respond the same: by fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning. 


How Does the Stress Response Work?

All throughout the day, we’re taking in information about our surroundings through our senses. If something in our environment sets off any actual or sensed danger alarms, the parts of our brain that are logical and rational are overridden by our survival brain which sends signals to our bodies to prepare for the danger. The parts of your brain that are responsible for this response are reactionary, automatic parts – not thinking parts. We don’t get to choose how we respond in these situations, they just happen automatically which is very handy in a dangerous situation but can be frustrating in other situations.



What Does Fighting, Fleeing, Freezing, and Fawning Look Like?

Stress responses in an actual deadly situation look different than in stressful situations, so let’s start by looking at what fighting, fleeing, freezing, and fawning look like in an event that is life-threatening.



Stress Responses in Life-Threatening Situations

Let’s say it’s Saturday morning and you’re on a nice hike through the woods when a huge bear steps into your path.


  • FIGHT: If your response is to fight, you may make some loud noises at the bear and try to make yourself appear bigger and more threatening. You may use your trekking poles as a weapon or throw rocks at the bear to scare it off. You’re going to take some sort of action to eliminate or gain power over the threat.


  • FLIGHT: The goal of a flight response would be to avoid or retreat from the threat instead of confronting it head-on. You’d most likely back away, run, or try and climb up the nearest tree until the bear leaves. If the bear decides to attack, you may take more extreme measures and throw yourself down a steep slope or jump off an overhang into a ravine to escape the bear.


  • FREEZE: The freeze response happens when it’s not safe to fight or flee, or when you need more time to assess the situation. Your brain has milliseconds to determine what course of action is most likely to result in your survival so freezing can be very helpful. The freeze response prepares you to take action, hide/ be unnoticeable, or disconnect and detach from your body. You can think of the freeze response as “aware immobility.” You’re frozen in place but you’re still aware and able to assess the situation. In this case, freezing means you may avoid the bear’s attention or send the message that you are not a threat. If the bear were to actually attack, you may even feel detached from your body as if you were watching the attack happen to someone else and you don’t feel much pain at all.


  • FAWN: The purpose of the fawn response is to appease or placate a threat as the primary way to ensure survival. In a confrontation with a bear, you may make yourself appear as small and unthreatening as possible, use a gentle voice to assure the bear that you are not going to hurt it, or even dig some food out of your pack and toss it to the bear so that you can get away while it’s distracted.


Luckily, most of us aren’t encountering life-or-death situations on a regular basis, but our stress responses may still get triggered into action. Let’s take a look at what different stress responses might look like in everyday situations.



Stress Responses in Everyday Life

This time, let’s picture a Monday morning and you’re getting settled into your workplace or school for the day and you get a message that your boss or principal wants to see you ASAP.


  • FIGHT: The goal of a fight response is the same regardless of the situation: to gain power and control over whatever is perceived to be causing stress. When you’re being called into your boss’s office, your fight response is meant to eliminate that stress. You may find yourself getting defensive, becoming verbally aggressive, and confrontational. You may even find yourself becoming physically aggressive toward people or objects near you. 


  • FLIGHT: A flight response would look more like avoidance or retreat. Think about all the ways you could possibly escape an uncomfortable experience. You may physically leave a stressful situation and create distance between yourself and the source of the stress, or just avoid the source altogether. When your boss or principal requests that you go to their office, you might pretend you didn’t see the message, or you may say you’re sick and need to go home. You may take the longest route possible, and if you ever do make it to their office, you might feel the urge to deflect, project, and distract from the conversation if it’s not feeling safe. 


  • FREEZE: When you’re in a freeze response, you might notice that it’s hard to make complete sense of what is being said to you or you might not be able to articulate a response. You might notice that your hands are cold and clammy, your body is tense and still, your breathing is shallow, and the only thing going on in your brain are cricket sounds. You’re basically a dear in headlights. Maybe the worst part is after the meeting, your mind is suddenly flooded with all the things you wanted to say and do but couldn’t. 


  • FAWN: With a fawn response, you would of course walk to your boss’s or principal’s office no questions asked with a smile on your face despite your heart feeling like it’s going to pound out of your chest. You would most likely find yourself nodding along with whatever is being said and being as agreeable as possible to keep your boss or principal appeased, and ensuring you can get out of there as quickly as possible. You might apologize and take responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, and volunteer for things you don’t want to do. These people-pleasing behaviors are your way of subduing the perceived threat. 


Now that you have an idea of what your stress responses are, what are you supposed to do about them? We know the parts of the brain responsible for activating our stress responses don’t have the ability to use logic to assess a situation, it just reacts. Because of this, so much of our work toward regulating our systems has to happen before it’s activated in the first place. 



The Window of Tolerance

Doctor Dan Siegel developed the idea of the window of tolerance as a way of recognizing our nervous system’s sweet spot where we are able to successfully cope with everyday stressors and remain regulated. When we’re in our window of tolerance, we’re able to learn new information, respond and react to things from a grounded place, maintain regulation when stressful things happen, and move through life in a calm, cool, and collected way. 

When our window of tolerance is nice and wide, we have much more space for the emotions and stress that everyday life brings. If we have a really narrow window of tolerance, itty bitty upsets like traffic, stubbing a toe, or dropping something can kick us into hyper- or hypo-arousal. If we build things like mindfulness, self-compassion, self-care, movement, and community into our lives, we can grow how much we are able to tolerate. So let’s look at a few ways to help our systems out before our stress response is activated, and how we can calm it back down afterward.



How to Widen Your Window

  • Awareness: Just noticing and acknowledging what feelings, body sensations, and thoughts are coming up can make all the difference. Imagine ignoring a child or pet that needs our attention; they would just get louder and louder in an attempt to get the attention they crave. Our emotions, physical feelings, and thoughts are the same way. Give them the attention they need and you’ll find that they quiet down.


  • Grounding: Keeping yourself grounded in the present is essential. Practice this throughout the day by tuning into what you are experiencing through your senses. What can you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste in the present moment? 


  • Self-Compassion: If you’ve ever been inside a public school or an office building, you’ve probably seen “inspirational” posters about excellence, success, and motivation. It makes sense that being bombarded with these messages saying you need to be the best of the best and get back up when you fall down would lead to self-loathing and disappointment. But maybe, you just need some time on the ground to rest and heal before getting back up. That’s what self-compassion is. Get comfortable with being kind and patient with yourself and you’ll notice how much more of the world’s nonsense you can endure. 


  • Sleep: Get on a consistent sleep schedule. Our nervous system is what helps our brains and bodies work together, and allows all of our different systems to communicate and function as a whole. Sleep deprivation can lead to issues like memory problems, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and so many other things that can throw your system off balance and restrict its ability to function.


  • Diet/Exercise: Along with adequate and consistent sleep, taking care of our bodies by eating healthy foods and keeping them strong with regular movement also keeps our nervous systems balanced and stable. You don’t have to cut out all the fun foods or spend an hour at the gym every day, but eating your fruits and veggies, and walking your dog or dancing around the house can do wonders for your overall health and how much stress you can handle.


  • Community: Our culture and society have made it hard for us to regularly connect with our “village.” Our village is made up of people who regularly check in with you, connect with you, and are able to be present with you whether you’re struggling or thriving. Make it a point to consistently reach out to the people in your village and nurture those relationships, or build your community from the ground up! Find some support groups near you, join a book club, or think of what you’re interested in and find a group of people who share your interests. After all, our nervous systems feed off each other so surrounding yourself with your village is good for the soul.

How to Re-Regulate

How to Re-Regulate

Even if you’ve put in the preventative work in widening your window, it’s helpful to have skills to help you move back into your window when tough situations come up.


  • Grounding: Look around you and name all the things that are shaped like a square. As you’re naming these things, imagine what it would feel like to hold or touch them. Would they feel hard? Soft? Smooth? Rough? Cool? Warm?


  • Breathing: When we’re in a stress response, we shift to breathing shallowly and to containing our breath to the upper chest. To counteract this, we want to use our entire diaphragm. Place your hand on your abdomen and take a deep breath in through your nose. You should feel your hand rise as your ribs and tummy rise and then retract as you slowly exhale through your mouth. Do this ten times.


  • Sensory Stimulation: If you find yourself in a hypo-aroused state and just feel numb, tired, depressed, and unmotivated, try stimulating your senses. Run your hands under cold water or hold some ice cubes, eat a sour food or candy, listen to music, smell an invigorating essential oil like citrus or mint, take a hot or cold shower, or watch a video or look at a picture that is visually stimulating.


  • Therapy: Sometimes there will be things like trauma and other mental health issues that make it feel next to impossible to just eat or shower, let alone try and learn all these new skills (remember when we’re not in the window of tolerance, you can’t learn and integrate new information). That doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. If you need some extra support, therapists are trained to guide you through different skills and techniques.



Next Steps

Taking care of your nervous system can be really hard to do if it’s already been primed to expect stress and danger due to various traumatic experiences like abuse, assault, neglect, domestic violence, war, trafficking, and so many other things. When your system senses danger everywhere, you can so easily get into a cycle of being stuck in a stress response.


If this is something you’re noticing, it might be a great time to get some specialized help from one of the trauma therapists at Hope for the Journey. Our team of caring therapists would be honored to support you in learning the skills to help you better cope with the issues you face. You deserve to feel hope again and prioritize yourself. To start therapy with Hope For the Journey, please follow these simple steps:

1. Contact Hope for the Journey

2. Meet with a caring therapist

3. Start receiving the support you and your teen deserve.

Other Services Offered At Hope For The Journey

Our team is happy to offer a number of services from our Round Rock and Austin therapy offices in person and virtually. Mental health services include therapy for anxiety and depressiondomestic violencesexual assaultPTSD, and EMDR. Our team also provides support for family members of all ages with counseling for teens and young adultschildren and tweenscouplesmen, and parents/partners. Contact us today to learn more about our team and community involvement!

Scroll to Top