F3 or the Fight-Flight-Freeze response is the body’s automatic, built-in system designed to protect us from threat or danger. For example, when you hear the words, “look out!” you may be surprised to find how fast you move, and thankfully so, as you narrowly miss a flying puck sailing through your kitchen window! Or when you see a bear on the trail up ahead, you stop and remain quiet and still until it moves on. In both scenarios your system demonstrates its effectiveness at protecting you from danger.
The F3 system is critical to our survival from true threat or danger, but what happens when there is no real danger? Interestingly, anxiety can also trigger this system into action when we believe there is threat or danger even if there is not. For example, your teen may yell at you for pushing her into taking her driving test when she doesn’t feel ready (fight). Or your son may avoid going to a party or leave early because he doesn’t feel comfortable around unfamiliar people (flight). Or, your child may feel as though her mind goes blank when the teacher asks her a question (freeze). All of these are examples can mistakenly triggering the F3 alarm.
When many of these sensations occur together (approximately 4 or more), we call this a panic attack. Panic attacks are completely harmless, but some teens become afraid of these sensations, worrying that something is wrong with them when the F3 system gets activated. You can share all of this information with your child through some simple explanations as well as showing them how the F3 works by going here. Start by saying, “We all have a fight-flight-freeze system that protects us from danger…”
When you breathe too fast or too deep, you may feel a little lightheaded. This is called hyperventilating. Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous! Your body is just trying to get more oxygen and blood to your large muscles so you can fight, run, or hold still.
When you are confronted with danger, your pupils get bigger to let in more light so you can better spot the danger. This can make things seem brighter or fuzzier, and you may even see some black spots or other visual effects.
When you are faced with danger, blood from your fingers starts to move towards bigger muscles, like your biceps. These bigger muscles need energy to help you fight or run. Your fingers may feel numb, cold, or tingly as blood moves away from them.
When faced with danger, your body tenses up, so you are ready to spring into action. The muscles in your arms tense up so you can strike out at danger, pull yourself away, or hold still.
Your body works hard to help you get ready for danger. It takes a lot of energy, which can cause your body to heat up. Sweat from your underarms, palms, or forehead cools down your body.
When your body is preparing itself for action, it makes sure blood and oxygen is pumped to major muscles like your biceps or thighs. This gives you energy and power to strike out at danger or to run away as fast as you can.
When your body thinks you are in danger, it puts all its resources into protecting you. Other systems in your body (like your digestive system) slow down, because your body thinks giving you energy to deal with the danger is more important than digesting that sandwich you had for lunch. Of course, this means you might get an upset or sore stomach from that sandwich sitting in stomach acid while it waits to be digested once the danger passes.
When faced with danger, your body tenses up, so you are ready to spring into action. The muscles in your legs tense up so you can run away, fight back by kicking, or hold still.
… kinda like having spidey sense. But sometimes your spidey sense goes off when there is no danger, like when Spiderman swings into action thinking he is breaking up a fight when it’s just two friends playing. False Alarm!
…kinda like wearing protective padding to play hockey, football or lacrosse but you accidentally keep your gear on to go to class or sit down for dinner! Say what?! False Alarm!
…kinda like having a really sophisticated firewall on your computer to filter out junk mail. Except it mislabels email from mum as spam. Ooops! False Alarm!