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Fight, flight or freeze? Understanding body reactions to distress

Everyone has different thresholds when it comes to dealing with stress. At different moments in our lives we will experience stress in different magnitudes. Before we go deeper, we need to first know how our body reacts to stressful situations. There are two main systems that come into play during a stressful encounter – the sympathetic and parasympathetic system.

Sympathetic System

Our sympathetic nervous system plays a part in mediating our neuronal and hormonal stress response, which causes some bodily reactions such as increased heart rate, raised blood pressure, papillary dilation, etc. All these reactions prepare our body to go into the fight or flight response that helps us respond instantly in times of danger.

Parasympathetic System

After the fight or flight response, our parasympathetic nervous system aids to maintain homeostasis within our bodies, and bring our body back to a rest. However, in situations that are too stressful, our parasympathetic system may fail or take a longer time to bring our body back to homeostasis.

Fight, Flight, Freeze!

When our fight or flight system is activated, we may experience reactions such as tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision) or auditory exclusion. Such reactions affect our ability to make sound decisions that are best for ourselves at that point in time.

The fight response may cause us to experience overwhelming agitation while flight response can be manifested through social withdrawal or simply shutting down and ignoring the situation.

When these two responses do not work, a person may even go into a freeze response when they experience tightness in their muscles, low tone and eventually temporary immobility. Hence at such point in time, it will be helpful if someone steps in to offer support, to help the person in distress calm down and allow his or her body to activate his or her parasympathetic system again.

5 Steps to Help Someone in Distress

We offer help out of good intention, but may not always react in the best way that is helpful for someone in distress. Here are 5 steps you could use as a guide to help someone in distress:

1. Check on the person’s safety

Ensure they are not in any immediate physical danger. If they are at risk of hurting themselves, try your best to stay with them and keep them safe while you seek help.

2. Listen without judgement

Let them know that you hear them. Acknowledge what the say with verbal and non-verbal cues. It is also alright to sit with them in silence as they cope with regulating their emotions.

3. Reassure them

Reassure them to let them know they are safe and that help is readily available. There are many online resources and even helplines.

4. Encourage them to seek help

Recommending them to seek professional help allows them to work through their struggles, difficulties and challenges through a fresh pair of lenses.

5. Take care of yourself

That’s right. In the midst of being there for others, it is inevitable that you may be affected by their troubles too. Put aside some time for self-care to ensure you are in a healthy state to continue helping/care-giving.

Most importantly…

You should not be forcing help on others if they have rejected your offer of assistance or analysing their problems and pressuring solutions on them. Respect their feelings and do not be dismissive of their emotions. However, if you believe they are in immediate danger, please seek help from relevant authorities or professionals. 


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