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The Trauma Experience: Fight-Flight-Freeze

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Psychologist DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA introduces three survival responses that are triggered during a traumatic experience.

When we experience a traumatic event, our fight-flight-freeze system gets activated. In other words, our bodies recognize the threat to our survival, safety or wellbeing, and begin to activate chemical processes that prepare our body to run from danger or fight back. This activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggers many physiological responses, such as increased heartbeat, enhanced sweating, pupil dilation, reduced digestion, suppressed immune-response and many more. Our bodies are driven to perform at their best.

If our brain’s best survival strategy is to run, then we are most likely to go for that. If our brain calculates better chances for us to fight and over-power the danger, then we stay. However, if our brain realises that there is no hope to survive, whether we flee or fight, we may instead freeze, our system shutting down and giving up. This happens when there seems to be no way to avoid the inevitable, so our body is using its last resources to help us somewhat detach from what is about to happen.

Even decades after a traumatic experience, we may come across triggers associated with this trauma that rapidly activate our sympathetic nervous system and invoke a fight, flight or freeze response within us. In severe cases, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, individuals may feel like they are back in the midst of the traumatic incident even when they are safe at home. In less severe cases, individuals may feel anxious or a rush of adrenaline cursing through their bodies. These responses were adaptive at the time of traumatic event, but are not adaptive when we are under pressure at work, in an argument with our partner, driving a car, or safely sitting in our living room with fireworks going off outside.

Trauma memory stays in the body, in this fight-flight-freeze activation. To fully resolve residual trauma, is it important to process and release these automatic physiological responses in a healthy way.

To find out more about how trauma therapy can help you recover from past trauma, book a consultation with psychologist Dr. Esslin Terrighena, please contact (852) 2521 4668 or

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