Adapting Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Just about a year ago, I began to take particular notice of “when” and “how” requests and the moments that follow them. Right now, it feels especially important to consider them and the affect they have on us.

When and how. Simple words, yet so complicated, full of commitment, and challenge that they often evoke a flight, flight, or freeze response.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

Our response to threat is basic and nearly instantaneous, evolved for survival. The fight, flight, or freeze response is beyond our control. It’s a hormonal and physiological process triggered by the amygdala, part of our limbic system.

To be sure, there are instances in life when these responses are critical and there are also moments where creating space from them is paramount. That space can help and support us while we figure out a response to a “when” and “how” request that might be a better alternative for ourselves, others, and our communities.

Adapting Our Response

For this space-creating practice, consider fight, flight, or freeze as responses to “change” rather than a “threat” to survival. In allowing ourselves to adapt from “threat” to “change” a response can be viewed differently as shown in this illustration.

Each reframed pairing includes a behavior choice along with a future-oriented response to move forward and break default patterns.

  • To engage and maintain is to actively contribute and establish a constructive new pattern.
  • To leave and grieve is to decide that a thing no longer belongs while acknowledging its loss.
  • To weigh and act is to know there are unknowns to consider before we choose what to do.

These moments might show up as…

  • A senior leader deep-dive request about a proposed new approach. They have happened many times in the past. Still there is a default sense of fear. Reflecting on the level of preparedness, the feeling of readiness sets in. Engage & Maintain
  • The product or program launch that must be postponed due to the uncertainty of the market despite the readiness, excitement, and alignment of the team. Leave & Grieve
  • The time has come to change roles, teams, and/or organizations. It could be self-, team- or organization-initiated. The feelings and thoughts are swirling. Identifying and exploring options, a choice emerges Weigh & Act
  • A deadline given of “next week”. Leave & Grieve. It leads to a follow-up question. “Does that mean early or later in the week?” Engage & Maintain. There’s silence. Weigh & Act. To break the silence, an explanation of why clarity is needed yields an agreed commitment. Engage & Maintain

Now it’s your turn to take notice.

When and how might you respond to a change that is happening for you right now?

When and how might you make a request differently?


Part IV in a series defining, identifying sources and symptoms of, and understanding responses to organizational and system conflict.

Part IV took some time and processing given recent events. It is my when and how for here and now. The theory and practice of this adaption is in its early stages of development. If you are curious to learn more feel free to reach out.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that there are many valuable perspectives being shared and discussed presently as we determine our path forward individually and collectively. I am ever so appreciative for them. Here are two I feel particularly connected to as I wrote this.

We are not in the same boat” by an anonymous poet

Recent posts by Nick Shaw

Originally published on April 22, 2020 on LinkedIn

2 thoughts on “Adapting Fight, Flight, or Freeze”

  1. Pingback: My War-Life Balance in Ukraine: Part 1 | Writing Breeze

  2. Pingback: Help Us Celebrate 100 Blog Posts! – Ombuzz

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top