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Why do I freak out when I’m stressed?

To work out why you're feeling anxious, it can be really helpful to understand what anxiety actually is, and how it evolved in the human brain.

Three images of the same teen in fight, flight and freeze response

When our brain thinks we are in danger, it responds to help us stay safe. This is called our fight/flight/freeze response.

Imagine you're in a forest. Suddenly, an angry bear appears between the trees and runs towards you. On instinct, you would likely respond in three ways:

  • Fight the bear off (fight response)
  • Run away as fast as you can (flight response)
  • Not moving, hiding or even playing dead (freeze response)

These responses are automatic, which means you don’t consciously choose which one you do in any situation.

You might react in different ways in different situations. People tend to favour one response over others most of the time.

For example it might seem very silly to ‘freeze’ when there is a bear about, but it’s useful when faced with a predator who struggles to see prey that isn’t moving!

We live in a world that is full of stress. So even though you’re not being chased by a bear, stuff like homework or fighting with friends can trigger your fight/flight/freeze response.

Ways you can experience fight/flight/freeze

In modern-day life with modern-day stress and anxiety, your response might might look like:

Panic (flight response)

Being irritable (fight response)

Not reacting at all (freeze response)

Getting into an argument (fight response)

Isolation or withdrawal (flight or freeze response)

Procrastination or avoidance (flight or freeze response)

Different parts of your brain respond when you are stressed

Survival brain

  • Prioritises some survival functions, e.g. your heart beats faster so you can breathe in more oxygen, which is important if you need to fight or run away
  • Extra energy goes to your limbs so you can move faster or be stronger


Emotional brain

  • Your emotions become more intense
  • This is kind of like a WARNING system to help us respond to threats quickly


Smart brain

  • Temporarily goes ‘offline’ – it doesn’t matter if you can conjugate French verbs or do algebra if you are in danger!
  • The energy that your smart brain would normally use is sent to other prioritised brain and body systems

It’s not just your brain that responds

When you feel threatened, your body sends energy away from any bodily function that isn’t necessary to your immediate survival.

Here are some ways this happens:

  • Your immune system is suppressed (it doesn’t matter if you get a head cold next week if a bear is about to eat you)
  • Your digestive system is suppressed (there’s no point digesting the sandwich you had for lunch if a bear is about to eat you)
  • Your reproductive system is suppressed (having kids would be dangerous if there are bears around)
  • Your body clock might change (if you are in danger, falling asleep could make you very unsafe)
  • … and many others!

Ways your body reacts to stress

Your body might have some of these symptoms if you are anxious or stressed:

Feeling shaky

Feeling very tired

Lowered immunity

Reproductive issues

Trouble concentrating

Feeling short of breath

Hormone-related issues

Difficulties sleeping/insomnia

Rapid heartbeat or heart palpitations

Sick in the stomach or digestive issues

Other ways you might react to stress

Beyond fight/flight/freeze, there may be other automatic responses that humans use as well, such as:

  • Fawn (also known as the ‘appease’ or ‘please’ response), e.g. convincing the bear not to eat you, pleasing the bear so it doesn’t eat you, or being cute so the bear feels empathy for you
  • Fatigue (get too tired to respond)
  • Faint (just nope out)
  • Tend and befriend (keep your enemies close!)

“No matter whether your response to a threat was fight, flight or freeze, once you feel safe, your brain and body start to calm down."

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

If you’re confused about the way you react to situations, talking with someone can really help

You’re not alone – support is always available.

If you want to learn more about anxiety and how to deal with it, give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email today.

If you need more information for other digital services and resources, check out Head to Health.

This content was last reviewed 06/04/2020

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