Fight, Flight or Freeze

Social Anxiety Help

Larry Cohen, LICSW

Fight, Flight or Freeze

Remember, the anxiety response includes not only feelings, but also physiological changes, behaviors and thoughts.

The physical and behavioral parts of the anxiety mechanism are often called the fight or flight response. This mechanism is triggered by the perception–correct or not–that we are facing something dangerous. That perception then triggers a special part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. This activates a number of changes in our body that prepares us to take action: some form of counterattack or escape.

How dramatic these physiological changes are depend on how immanent and dangerous we perceive the threat to be. When we are very anxious, we breathe more rapidly in order to take in more oxygen: a fuel for our body. Our adrenal glands secrete the hormone adrenaline which temporarily raises our blood pressure and gives us a spurt of energy and strength. Our heart beats more rapidly to pump this extra oxygen and adrenaline throughout our body, especially our arms and legs (for fighting or fleeing). Our muscles tense up in preparation for sudden action. We perspire to cool off our heated bodies.

In other words, the anxiety mechanism puts our bodies into “high gear” so that we have the extra strength and energy to fight or run from the source of danger.

Actually, besides fight or flight, there is an additional component to the anxiety mechanism that often comes first. We frequently freeze upon the first sign of danger. That freeze response allows us to focus our attention entirely on the source of the danger so that we can better assess how to handle it. We also tend to be less noticeable to our potential attackers when freezing.

The Purpose of Anxiety

Perception is the Starting Point

Fight, Flight or Freeze

When Dangers are Social

Social Anxiety Does Not Equal Introversion

Social Anxiety Triggers

Biology, Social Anxiety and Medication

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Social Anxiety


If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC):