Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn: Working with 4 Phases of the Nervous System

Updated: Feb 18

In this video, you will learn the four phases of the nervous system response under stress and in safety, and practice a brief movement/breath exercise to engage with each one. I would love to hear how this video impacted you in the comments below or write to us via our contact page.


Learn more about Somatic Therapy here.


You can also learn more about this view of the nervous system in the work of my teachers: Dr. Peter Levine, i.e. Somatic Experiencing, as well as Kimberly Ann Johnson.


VIDEO TRANSCRIPT


So, I’m really wanting this half an hour to be like a Nervous System 101 workshop where we just kind of touch on the basics of: What is the nervous system? How does it work? How does it respond to stress? And what are a couple little tools that we can use? And I’m hoping to make it pretty interactive, so I’m thinking, if you feel more comfortable with your video off, just leave it off. But if you’re open to having it on, I think it would really help me to see some faces and some body language. And just know that you won’t be recorded. I’m just recording myself. Great. Hello. And I already saw some faces that I knew from back in Carver days, so that feels really good. Oh, nice. Everyone’s popping on. Hi. Yeah. It’s really nice even just for our nervous systems to see each other’s faces and see each other’s eyes. Yeah. Hi, Rachel. Hi, Molly. Great. So, I’m thinking, let’s begin. Oh, yay. More and more.


BODY SCAN MEDITATION


Let’s begin by doing a little bit of settling in, grounding, and centering. And I’m thinking, since we’re on the computer, and we are spending so much time on the computer these days, it’s very heady, very up and forward, so I’ve been enjoying bringing the attention down to the lower half of the body. So maybe just notice how it is to notice your seat. See what you’re sitting on. See if you need to make any little micro-movements to get comfortable. Yeah. And then even take a breath or two into your pelvis, almost like your pelvis could breathe. And see if it wants deeper breaths, shorter breaths. And if it feels good, you can have your eyes closed, or you can also have them gently open. Yeah. Just sort of scanning around the pelvis, feeling that contact with whatever you’re sitting on.


And then starting to let that breath and that awareness drip down the legs, upper legs, femurs, hamstrings, feeling the knees. And if you feel any tension or constriction, you can try just breathing into it, and on the exhale, inviting it to relax. And then feeling down into the lower legs, calf muscles, all the layers of bone, skin, muscles, tendons, fluids, empty space, and even feeling the space around the legs. And then breathing down into the delicate ankle bones, the bones of the feet, tops of the feet, toes and the toenails, tips of the toes, the heels, the balls of the foot, and feeling into the very center bottom of the foot. And if you like this image, you can imagine that there’s almost like a water spigot in the middle of the bottom of the foot, and when you open it up, any excess tension, excess charge can drain out. And just take a few breaths, letting that image go where it wants.


And notice what happens to the rest of your body and the rest of your system when you have just a couple of moments to pay attention like this and be in the body. And I’m seeing some nice, open, relaxed faces. And I’m going to take it one step further and have you think of a place that you really enjoy being. It could be a place in nature. It could be your grandmother’s living room, some place that feels safe and comforting. And just visualize yourself in this place. And really flesh it out. What temperature is it? What season is it? What’s the weather like? How does the air feel on your skin? What sounds would you be hearing? What smells? And see if you can take in this comforting place even 1% more. Yeah. I’m seeing some deeper breaths. And this is kind of going to be your home base throughout this mini-presentation.


So, when you feel ready, start to remember the room that you’re actually in, almost like looking around it with your mind’s eye. And start to let in the sound of my voice. And remember one thing in your space that has a pleasant quality to you, something that you enjoy in this room. And when you open your eyes, slowly let yourself orient to the object in your room that feels pleasant in some way. Let yourself notice it. Take it in. Great. Thanks for going on that little journey with me. We’re not going to do anything too intense, but sometimes just talking about the nervous system can start to activate things. So I like to have this place that’s sort of like when you’re playing tag, there’s like the safety zone. This is like a safety zone. When you start to feel “Ooh, something’s coming up a little bit,” bring yourself back to that place that feels comforting. And if you need to turn off the audio or zone me out, don’t worry. You can get the recording. It’s more important that we stay regulated. Great.


body scan meditation nervous system

CHECKING IN: MENTAL, EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL


So, I’m going to go through… Actually, before I go through, I would love if people could just check in in the chat with just a word or two about how you’re doing right now. I just kind of want to get a sense of where we all are. “Overwhelmed with work.” Me too. “Relaxed.” Nice. “Better. I was stressed today.” “Stressed with work.” “Overwhelmed.” “Exhausted.” “Overwhelmed, but okay too.” Yeah. That sounds about right. A lot of overwhelm, a lot of exhaustion, a lot of work stress. Luckily, some people are feeling calm. That’s nice. “Worried about kids.” Yeah. And I’m going to ask us to go a little bit deeper into checking in with how we’re doing, and just check in on a few different levels. And this really has to do with getting to know our nervous system.


So, first, let’s check in, again, just with a word or two, on the mental level. And not so much what are you thinking about, whether it’s the content of your thoughts, but more like how are your thoughts feeling? Are there a lot of them? Are they really fast? Are they really sticky? Or are they going slow? Are they smooth? Is there space in between? Are they foggy? “Like a fire hose.” Yeah. Yeah, I can relate. “Tired of endless to-do.” “Racing.” “Scattered.” “Not a lot of space in between.” Yeah. Yep. And now, let’s check in on the emotional level. So, how are you feeling emotionally? Are you feeling irritated, joyful, depressed, worried, excited, so excited to hear me talk? Claire is. “Very fast and won’t slow down.” “Grateful.” “Anxious all the time.” “Rollercoaster.” “Worried.” Yeah. And the last one, let’s check in on the physical level. How is your body doing? Do you feel tense? Do you feel open? Do you feel itchy, smooth, hot, cold, soft, or hard? “Tense and achy.” Yeah. “Tense, and yoga is not helping as it used to.” “Healthy but exhausted.” “Stagnant. It feels the same every day. I miss variety.” Yeah. And so interesting how our bodies can hold those things, you know? Like we can feel that stagnancy on such a tangible level. “Fatigued. Just ran.” So that’s nice. Yeah.


So, we’re sort of taking our own temperature, which I imagine, for myself, I’ll say I don’t get a ton of opportunities to slow down enough and really check in on these different levels. And it can feel really nice to really see it and really feel it, even if what we’re feeling is not so pleasant. And then also getting a sense of the… I like to call it the collective nervous system or the family nervous system, like it’s not just individual. Especially right now, if you think about COVID, it’s something we’re all going through, and I think a lot of us can feel that collective tension, collective stress and exhaustion. Yeah. So, as I sort of go through the nervous system points, you can think about it for yourself and also for the people that you know, people that you love. And you can also think about it in terms of groups. Like, “Where does my family tend towards?” or “Where does my school tend towards?” or my city or my country.


And along the way, if you have any questions that are like very particular to what I’m talking about at the moment, feel free to type them in. And I think Claire will keep an eye on that. And I’m fine with being interrupted. And then also, if you have ones that you either want to save for the end, or you can just type them in as we go, and then Claire will read them to me at the end, and we’ll have about 15 minutes for questions. Sound good? Great.


So, basically, I’m a body-based therapist in Boulder and online, and I mostly work with the nervous system. And I consider the nervous system to be kind of like the lost system of the body. I think it’s being rediscovered now. But for some reason, I never really heard about it. I never learned too much about it until pretty recently. And I was pretty deep into meditation and yoga. And what I’ve found, from my perspective, is that the nervous system is the key to understanding how we react to stress. So, I think of the nervous system really as the stress or safety system. Like when we’re feeling safe, our nervous system is what tells us, “Okay, it’s time to digest.” It’s what allows us to rest. It’s what allows our eyes to relax and our voice to relax. It allows us to feel connected to other people. It allows us to have energy to get things done, and then to have calm to come down at the end of the day. And it’s the system that, when we’re under threat, allows us to fight back or run away or freeze up. It keeps us safe, and it also can get stuck in any of these places, so that we’re playing out these stress responses even when we’re not actually under threat.


STRESS & THE NERVOUS SYSTEM


So, to me, dealing with stress is all about dealing with the nervous system and getting to know, “How does my nervous system tend to react to stress? What is it like? What can I do for it?” So, there’s basically four stages to the nervous system, and I’m going to go through each one. I’ll name each one, but then I’m going to go through them a little bit more in depth, and then we’ll do just one exercise for each one, so we can sort of get a taste of what we’re talking about. And that will be a little bit of like breath movement type of exercises. So, the stages are social engagement, which is what keeps us connected to other people. And the dark side of social engagement is fawning or fitting in. And I’ll come back to that. The next stage is fighting. They call it fight and flight. So, there’s fight and flight, and the last one is freeze or playing dead. Yeah. And there’s positive and negative sides to each of these.


SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT SYSTEM


So, starting with the social engagement system, this is a really interesting part of our physiology because it’s all of the nerves in our face. It connects to the eyes, the mouth, the ears, and then down into the voice box and the heart. And it has a lot to do with what makes us mammals. Mammals are all about social engagement system, and it has a lot to do with mother-child bonding. So, when you have a child, you can see that face recognition. They’re staring at you, they’re hearing you, and you want to babble at them. And it stimulates these nerves. And they start to look around. And when we’re feeling relaxed and like we’re fitting in, we feel open in these nerves, like “Oh, my voice feels open. Oh, I feel like I can look around. It feels safe. I can hear what people are saying.” Sometimes you might have had the experience of being stressed, and it’s actually harder to hear what people are saying. It’s a really interesting phenomenon. Yeah. So, when we’re feeling safe, it feels much more open. And one point about this is that being on the computer locks these nerves into a certain stance. So that’s one reason that it can feel really stressful to spend so much time on the computer. That’s because, evolutionarily, we’re made to be running around, walking around, not holding our heads in one place. So, that’s sort of the social engagement system when you’re feeling safe.


The social engagement system, when you’re feeling under threat, people tend to go into fawning or fitting in. And fawning looks like placating people, people-pleasing, trying to get people to like you, abandoning yourself in order to feel safe in the group. And fitting in is similar, but it has more emphasis on trying to be similar to others. And so, these two self-protective mechanisms are really important if you’re actually under a social threat. Like if you need to be a part of a group or part of a family, if you’re a child and you have to be part of your family, it’s really intelligent to do some fawning and some fitting in. But when it becomes a problem is when we start to feel that way all the time, and we learn, “Oh, I have to fawn all the time to be safe” when really maybe we’re in a situation where we don’t need to anymore.


Yeah. I’m seeing some nods. Is this sort of sinking in? Yeah. Great. I’m going to do just a quick exercise that’s going to activate this social engagement system. So, bring your hands in front of you and wiggle your fingers. And then start to bring them out to the sides. I love having the power to make people do silly things. And see how far out to the side you can get them and still see the movement of your fingers without moving your head, and even without moving your eyes. So we’re just engaging that peripheral vision. And notice if activating the peripheral vision does anything to your system. I’m seeing some yawns. A lot of times, this will bring us down. And then, from this place, you can let your arms go. And keeping the peripheral vision, let yourself look around your space slowly, and make sure you’re moving your whole head and your neck. And maybe land on one thing and give it a name in your mind, like a blue painting. And then come back to checking in with yourself. Maybe close your eyes again. And just see if there’s been any small shift or big shift from activating that part of your body a little bit. See if the breath is different, if the speed is different. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re just exploring and trying different things.


social engagement nervous system healing

FLIGHT


And then we’re going to move on to… That’s probably the most complicated one, and it’s also the one that’s talked about the least, so we’re going to do these a little more quickly. The next stage, when we’re under threat, and we try fawning or fitting in, and it doesn’t work, we’re going to… And everyone is different, but to speak in generalities, we’re going to move to flight. That’s our next line of defense. We’re going to try to run away. So, that can look like… Sometimes it’s really obvious. Sometimes you want to leave a room. Sometimes you really want to go for a run. And other times, it’s more subtle. It’s like maybe flight into your head, and your thoughts are running around because it doesn’t feel safe to stay in the body. Or maybe it’s just a feeling of avoidance. I’m like subtly running away from this person. Maybe it’s I’m emotionally running away from this person or this situation. Or I’m not going to answer my phone. There are lots of ways of running away.


And again, I would say the really positive side of flight is I know where I am, I know what my options are, and I feel confident that I could leave. I could go down any of these options, and I have the energy to get there. The side that’s under threat or more stressful is I feel like I’m being chased. I have to get away. And that is also a really important response if we actually are being chased in some way. But again, it can get stuck in a nervous system loop where we are safe, but we still feel like we have to get away. We have to run away.

So, one thing that really helps, particularly with fight and flight, is digesting a little bit of that charge. So, we might think, “Oh, if I’m in flight, I should probably do savasana, do the opposite and calm down.” Sometimes that will actually make it a lot worse, and what we need to do is give ourselves a little bit of that flight response, so that our system can move through a whole cycle and come down the other side. So, we’re going to do a mini flight, which is going to be putting your feet on the floor with your heels up, so you’re sort of on your toes, and it’s engaging those calf muscles. And then we’re going to take a little gasping breath. So just do this as much as feels comfortable for you. It’s going to look like this. [gasps] It’s into the chest, a little gasp. [gasps, exhales] And we’ll do it three or four times. And then let your feet relax. Let everything come back down. And maybe check in again. How are you doing now?


Yeah. Yawning is a good sign. You might just be tired, but you might be discharging too. I personally feel like a wave of heat and a wave of energy, and it actually feels really pleasant. Yeah. So we’ll do that one more time, and it’s up to you if you want to do it again or if you want to sit it out. So, if you want to do it again, bring your heels up, and we’ll gasp three times. [gasps, exhales] And then let it come back down. Let that integrate a little bit. And just take a note, if that’s something that you’re enjoying or something that you’re hating. It’s good to know.


flight nervous system stress

FIGHT


The next phase, if running away doesn’t work, is we’re going to fight back. So, like if you think about cornering an animal, like cornering a dog, and it feels like it can’t get away, it’s going to start barking and biting and fighting back. So, that can look like aggression and fighting. It also can just look like irritation, anger, rage, not being able to settle down, feeling like something is always irritating you, and your system can’t settle. There’s this heat. And I would say the really positive side of fight is being assertive. You know what you want. You’re able to speak up for yourself. You’re able to say what you want. You feel confident that you can get what you want. And then the stressful side of fight is feeling like you have to fight someone off. You’re in danger. And again, that’s super important if you actually are having to fight someone off. And it becomes a problem when we get stuck in feeling like we have to fight in order to survive, when that might not be the reality anymore. And I think stressors, like COVID, bring up a lot of these, like we want to run away. We want to fight against it, and it’s hard because it’s an invisible threat. It’s not something that we can actually fight.


So, we’re going to a little bit similar to flight, but for fight. And if you have any of that fight charge inside, it’ll help digest that. And it’s also good if it’s difficult for you to feel fight. So, sometimes people who never feel fight love activating the fight. And then sometimes people who feel irritated all the time, they can also love digesting a little bit of this. So, what we’re going to do for fight is bring your hands, like one hand in a fist and one hand over your fist, push into each other a little bit, and bring it down to a level where you feel these chest muscles engage. Great. And then we’re going to do these breaths where it’s kind of percussive. You breathe out strongly and your belly goes in. So it will look like this. Could you sort of hear and see that? Yeah. Okay. So we’ll do it together just three times, pushing your belly in and then snorting out through the nose while pushing the hands together. And then let it go and check in. See if there’s any effect from that. Yeah. And we’ll do it one more time. Pushing together. See if you want it a little stronger or a little less. Inhale and exhale three pushes. And release. Noticing any impact. Notice if it feels pleasant, unpleasant, if anything else cycles through the body. Yeah.


fight nervous system stress

FREEZE


And the last element of the nervous system, the last response is called freeze. And this is what happens when we can’t fit in, we can’t run away, we can’t fight back. It’s like a gazelle running from a lion, and it realizes it’s going to get caught. There’s nothing it can do, and it just keels over. And we call it playing dead. But really it’s not a choice. It’s their nervous system takes over and brings them down. And it’s a really intelligent response because sometimes the predator thinks, “Oh, this thing is dead. I don’t want to eat it,” and then leaves. And also, if the animal ends up getting eaten, when it’s in freeze, you’re releasing endogenous opioids, painkillers. So it’s much better to be eaten when you’re in a freeze state. And it’s also like the wisdom of dissociating. Like when an animal is going to be eaten, it will dissociate. It’s like the Woody Allen joke: “I don’t mind having to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Yeah.


So, freeze. There’s also some really pleasant sides of freeze. You might see a kitten being held by its mother in its mouth. It’ll go into that limp freeze. But it’s like super safe and nourishing version of that where you’re with your mom. And there are ways that human beings go into those states, too. And also, in ecstatic experiences, you can go into a freeze, but it has a very pleasant quality to it. The negative side of freeze. One is either when you feel like you’re being eaten, you feel like “This is the end of the road for me. This is my last resort.” And if it really is, it’s going to be really helpful. But a lot of us get stuck in freeze because the stress builds and builds and sends us into freeze, and then that becomes our baseline. And even when there’s no threat, it can be hard to come out of freeze. So, that can look like feeling dissociated, feeling confused, feeling foggy, feeling disoriented, having a hard time having energy to engage. You feel exhausted all the time. And also, having a lot of physical problems have to do with freeze, like digestive issues. Our digestive organs can go into freeze.


So, we’re going to do a quick… It’s a sound that can help digest a little bit of freeze. And we all have all four of these, so it’s nice to work with all of them. Yeah. So, even if you really think you’re a freezer, this is great. And if you don’t, this is still a really important thing to try. So, the sound is a voo, and we’re going to do a long deep voo. And see if you can get it to resonate in the belly, in the digestive organs. So you can try my tone, and if that doesn’t feel right for you, try a different one. No one can hear you. Okay. Inhale big belly, and on the exhale, voo. And then check in with yourself. See if there’s any impact. And we’ll do it one more time. Inhale big belly. Voo.


And I’ve gone a bit over my time, so let’s just take this last check-in to see how you’re doing. Let any of the information that you’ve heard kind of wash through. See how your system is doing with hearing this information, trying these exercises. See what stands out to you. And then, as you feel ready, coming back. Sometimes it’s nice, after a little nervous system work, to look around at human faces, feel a little connection.


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Emma Sartwell Somatic Experiencing Therapist

Emma Sartwell, MDiv, SEPc, CYT | Emma holds a Master of Divinity from Naropa University and is a registered psychotherapist. She combines Somatic Experiencing, parts work, holistic healing, and mindfulness into her sessions, which focus on nervous system regulation, trauma integration, attachment patterning, inner critics and inner children, and ancestral healing. Her deepest joy is helping people feel more integrated, authentic, and connected.

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