16 Mar

The Brain’s Built-in Panic Button

Image by Kohji Asakawa from Pixabay

The Brain’s Built-in Panic Button: 

Understanding Fight – Flight – Freeze


Have you ever felt that sudden rush of panic hit you out of nowhere? One minute you’re cruising along without a care, and the next your heart is racing, palms sweating, muscles tense. That’s your brain’s panic button at work. Deep in your brain lies a tiny almond-shaped part called the amygdala that acts as an alarm system for potential threats. When it senses danger, real or perceived, it triggers the body’s automatic fight, flight, or freeze response before you even have time to think. But while this mechanism evolved to protect us from harm, it can sometimes be a little overzealous, causing unnecessary stress and anxiety. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how the amygdala and fight/flight/freeze response operate, why they can go haywire, and what you can do to keep them in check. Get ready to understand your brain’s built-in panic button like never before!

The Brain’s Alarm System: How the Amygdala Triggers Fight, Flight or Freeze

The Amygdala: Your Brain’s Security Guard

The amygdala is the part of your brain responsible for detecting threats and triggering your emergency response. When faced with danger, the amygdala activates your body’s fight or flight response by flooding your system with adrenaline and cortisol. 

Fight: Confronting the Danger

Faced with a threat, the amygdala may prompt you to stand up and fight. Your heart rate increases, senses sharpen, and muscles tense as adrenaline surges. You feel energized and aggressive, ready to confront the threat head-on.

Flight: Escaping the Danger

Alternatively, the amygdala may activate your urge to flee from the threat. Your heart pounds as adrenaline rushes through your body, supplying the energy you need to run away as fast as possible. Your mind narrows to focus on escaping the threat, blocking out distractions.

Freeze: Paralyzed by Fear

Sometimes the amygdala’s warning is so intense, we freeze in our tracks. Our heart races, but we remain paralyzed as the threat approaches. Freezing is often an involuntary reaction in the face of overwhelming danger. We feel powerless to act but acutely aware of the threat advancing.
The amygdala’s fear responses served our early ancestors well, but today these reactions are often disproportionate to the actual threat. Learning to manage your amygdala’s alarm system is key to overcoming anxiety and panic. With practice, you can stay calm and make wise decisions even when fear strikes.

Fight, Flight or Freeze: The Body’s Automatic Responses to Perceived Threats

When you sense danger, your amygdala activates your body’s emergency response system. This is commonly known as the fight or flight response, but it also includes freezing in place. These automatic reactions prepare you to confront or avoid a threat.


Your body prepares you for physical confrontation. Adrenaline surges, increasing your heart rate and blood pressure. Your muscles tense up, ready for action. This response can help give you the courage and strength to stand up to an aggressor.


Your body prepares you to escape from danger as quickly as possible. Adrenaline increases your heart rate and breathing to provide more oxygen to your muscles. Your body’s defences against pain and fatigue are activated so you can keep running even when exhausted. This life-saving response helped our ancestors escape predators and other threats.


Your body becomes immobilized. Your heart rate may increase, but your muscles tense up, preventing movement. Freezing in place can be an adaptive response, making you less noticeable to a predator. However, it can also prevent action in a crisis. The freeze response is linked to feelings of intense fear and helplessness. Understanding how your body responds in threatening situations can help reduce feelings of panic. Take deep breaths to help slow your heart rate, relax your muscles, and engage your rational mind. Your body’s emergency responses have served humans well, but in today’s world, you often need to override them to respond in a productive way. With practice, you can learn healthier ways to react to perceived threats.

The Evolutionary Origins of Fight, Flight and Freeze Reactions

Your body’s fight-or-flight response has been keeping humans alive for thousands of years. When our early ancestors encountered a dangerous threat like a wild animal, their bodies instantly reacted to keep them safe. This reaction is controlled by a tiny, almond-sized part of your brain called the amygdala.

The Amygdala: Your Brain’s Security System

Your amygdala acts as an alarm system, constantly scanning for threats. When it detects danger, it triggers a cascade of physical changes to prepare you to either fight for your life or run away to safety. Your heart starts pounding, your breathing speeds up, and adrenaline courses through your veins. Blood flow is diverted away from non-essential organs and sent to your muscles. Your senses become heightened, and your mind becomes focused.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Facing a threat, the options are: fight, flight, or freeze. 

Fighting means confronting the threat aggressively. Fleeing means escaping as quickly as possible. Freezing means remaining motionless in hopes the threat will pass. The option your body chooses depends on your perception of the threat and whether fighting or fleeing seems possible. Freezing is expected when the threat seems inescapable and fighting futile.

The fight-or-flight response causes an incredible rush of energy that gives you the power to fight or run physically. However, it often causes anxiety, distress, and impaired thinking. Learning to stay calm in stressful situations can help you avoid unhealthy knee-jerk reactions and make better choices. While your amygdala may never stop scanning for threats, you can train yourself to respond in a more balanced way.

Managing Anxiety: Tips to Overcome Fight or Flight Mode

When your amygdala senses a threat, real or perceived, it can activate your body’s fight-or-flight response. It is important to recognize the Signs. Your heart races, breathing quickens, and muscles tense up. These physical signs mean your amygdala has hit the panic button, flooding your system with adrenaline and cortisol. Take a moment to recognize these anxious feelings and know that they will pass. 

Remind yourself that you are not in any real danger. Focus on Your Breathing. Taking some deep, slow breaths can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure, easing anxiety. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make your exhales longer than your inhales.

Continue this focused breathing for a few minutes until you feel yourself relaxing.

Challenge Anxious Thoughts

Notice the thoughts racing through your mind and try to challenge any irrational ones. Ask yourself questions like “What evidence do I have that the worst will happen?” Replace anxious thoughts with more positive, realistic ones. Remind yourself of your strengths and past successes in overcoming anxiety.

Take a Quick Break

If possible, take a brief walk or do some light exercise like yoga. Physical activity releases endorphins that can improve your mood and reduce anxiety. Even just standing up or walking around can make you feel less trapped. Splashing cold water on your face can also activate your body’s calming system.

Connect With Others

Call a friend or loved one and talk through your anxiety. Let others support and reassure you. While anxiety feels very isolating, connecting to others can help you feel less alone and make fears seem more manageable. With practice, you can get better at identifying anxiety and employing strategies to overcome fight or flight mode. Be patient and gentle with yourself. Managing anxiety is a skill that takes time to develop. But by learning to activate your body’s natural calming system, you can find more peace and balance.

FAQs on Fight, Flight and Freeze


How does the fight or flight response work? When our brain perceives a threat, the amygdala activates the fight or flight response. It floods your body with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which make your heart race, blood pressure rise, and muscles tense. This prepares you to either fight the threat or flee to safety. Though useful for our ancestors, this response can be problematic in modern life where most of our threats are psychological.

What triggers the fight or flight response? Anything that activates your amygdala can trigger this response. This includes:

  • Perceiving a physical threat, such as an intruder or dangerous animal; experiencing a stressful event, like public speaking, a difficult conversation, or a medical emergency.
  • Witnessing a traumatic event, even if you’re not directly threatened.
  • Having anxious or worrisome thoughts about potential threats.
  • The amygdala can activate the response even when there is no real danger.
  • How can I calm my fight-or-flight response?

Several techniques can help calm an activated fight or flight response:

  • Deep breathing. 
  • Taking slow, deep breaths helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure. 
  • Challenge anxious thoughts. Identify worries and replace them with more constructive thoughts. Relax your body.
    Release tension through yoga, stretching, 
  • Release tension through yoga, stretching, massage, or a warm bath. Get light exercise.
    Go for a walk or do some light exercise like 
  • Go for a walk or do some light exercise like yoga. This helps burn off adrenaline and release endorphins. 
  • Connect to others.
  • Call a friend or family member.
  • Social interaction and support can help you feel safer.

What is the freeze response?

The freeze response is another automatic survival mechanism. When fighting or fleeing seems impossible, your body freezes in place. This is a last resort tactic to avoid danger by pretending to be dead or invisible. The freeze response can make you feel paralyzed, numb, or unable to move, speak or think clearly. It often occurs during extremely traumatic events and can lead to lasting problems if not addressed. The same techniques for calming fight or flight can also help unfreeze a freeze response.

Where is the amygdala located? The amygdala is a small almond-shaped structure located deep within the temporal lobe of your brain. It’s considered part of your limbic system, which is involved in controlling emotions and motivation. The amygdala has many connections to other parts of the brain, especially the frontal cortex and hippocampus.

Detecting threats 

One of the main jobs of your amygdala is to detect threats in the environment and initiate a response. When it perceives a threat, it triggers the fight or flight response by signalling the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain. This prepares your body to either confront the threat or escape to safety. The amygdala can activate this response even before your cortex, the thinking part of your brain, has had time to evaluate the situation fully.

Storing emotional memories

Your amygdala also plays an important role in processing emotional memories. When an event triggers an emotional response, the amygdala ensures the memory of that event is strongly imprinted in your mind. This is why emotional memories feel so vivid and can last for decades. The amygdala attaches significance and meaning to these memories to ensure you learn from them. While the amygdala’s hair-trigger response to threats ensured early human survival, today, it can sometimes lead to issues like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and phobias. The good news is, by practicing techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and cognitive reframing, you can help retrain your amygdala to have a more balanced response to events. Understanding how your amygdala works is the first step to gaining control over your emotional experiences and reactions.


And there you have it. Understanding how your amygdala activates the fight, flight, or freeze response can help you recognize those panicky physical sensations for what they are – your body’s built-in alarm system, not a sign that you’re losing it. When you feel that wave of anxiety rising, try some deep breaths or calming thoughts to hit the brakes and regain control. Your amygdala is just trying to protect you, but you’ve got this! You now know how to override the panic button and respond thoughtfully instead of reflexively freaking out. Keep practising staying cool under pressure, and over time it’ll get easier and easier to keep your head on straight, even when your amygdala says to panic. 

You got this!