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  • Writer's pictureThe Mind Faculty

Understanding Depression and Anxiety as a Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

by The Mind Faculty

Depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental health challenges that Malaysians face, are often conceptualised as a character flaw or a moral weakness. This underlies much of the stigma surrounding mental health, and prevents people from reaching out for help. They believe that they are ‘not strong enough’ or ‘a bad person’ if they aren’t coping as well as their peers.

Consequently, many people suffer needlessly. They are frustrated or ashamed when they feel overwhelmed by even the mere idea of catching up with friends, or going to work. They feel frustrated at how difficult it is to get out of bed. They ignore their racing thoughts or the impending feeling that something bad is going to happen. When they can no longer ignore it, they try to drown it out with drinking or drugs.

Understanding depression and anxiety as a fight-flight-freeze response highlights how these mental health challenges are not to do with who you are as a person but rather a variety of factors that are out of our control such as our biology and early life experiences.

Anxiety as a Fight or Flight Response

Symptoms of Anxiety/ Activated Fight or Flight Response

  1. Overthinking

  2. Hyper vigilance

  3. Shallow chest breathing/ Difficult breathing

  4. Tense muscles.

  5. The feeling that something bad is going to happen.

Feeling anxious is an evolutionary response that helps us to register danger, activate our fight or flight response and focus on doing things well.

Our fight or flight response is responsible for keeping us safe. It is activated by stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones prime our body for action: do we fight or do we run away?

When we have anxiety, we are constantly scanning our environment for threats. This traps us in our fight of flight response. This can explain the different symptoms of anxiety from why we overthink (we are trying to anticipate danger) to the tension in our muscles (our body is getting ready to respond to danger). What happens when the behaviours that are meant to keep us safe fail us?

Our fight or flight response depends on the baseline of stress hormones in our body, how they are secreted and how they are regulated. This is influenced by our genetics, and different experiences in our lives.

For example, if you had an emotionally unavailable parent growing up, your childhood would have been spent trying to win your parents affection. When we are children, our survival is dependent on our parents. We would be in our fight or flight response, trying to anticipate our parents’ needs to gain their love and attention.

When we are used to high levels of stress hormones in our body, the absence of these hormones can feel ‘off’ or that something is wrong. Ironically, we trigger these hormones again to feel a sense of safety. E.g., choosing a partner who is similar to our emotionally unavailable parent/ picking a fight with our boyfriend when things seem to be going well. When they respond in the way we expect them to, it reinforces our anxiety that we must be unlovable/ not good enough.

Understanding anxiety as a fight or flight response highlights that anxiety is not a character flaw or a moral failing. People who suffer from anxiety are trying to keep themselves safe from this embodied feeling of danger.

Depression as a Freeze Response

Symptoms of Depression as a Freeze Response

  1. Detachment from your thoughts and feelings.

  2. Feelings of helplessness.

  3. Sense of shrinking into yourself or trying to disappear.

  4. You feel unable to move or to take action.

The freeze response turns on when our brain decides that the 'threat' is too overwhelming and we are to fight it or escape from it. It can turn on a big way - such as freezing when someone is trying to mug you - or a small way. E.g., a feeling of dread when you have a test tomorrow, and you try to avoid it by not studying or avoiding it.

Symptoms of depression can be understood as the body going into freeze mode to protect itself from a threat. We feel helpless in the face of the different challenges in our life. Often, this is accompanied by a sense of frustration or shame at ourselves. It's only a test, why did I let myself down? Why did I freeze up when being attacked?

The freeze response can explain symptoms of expression such as feeling unable to move or take action (this is called tonic immobility when our muscles shut down in the face of inescapable danger) and feeling detached from your thoughts (your brain protects from inescapable pain).

We often think of the freeze response as inaction. However, this is not the case. This is hardwired into our brain’s survival centre - an evolutionary step that has kept us safe for thousands of years - and is triggered by highly stressful situations. This is the brain’s most desperate attempt for survival.

Therefore, we need to have a more compassionate view of those who are struggling with depression. It is not a choice or a ‘weakness’.

The Mind Faculty has psychiatric, psychological and counselling services available for those suffering from depression and anxiety. Our multidisciplinary team of practitioners work together so that each client can experience a compassionate and holistic approach to mental health care.

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