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How to handle a fight-flight-freeze reaction in stressful situations!

In stressful situations, everyone reacts differently. A change or crisis initially triggers fear in all of us. This fear is our automatic defense mechanism. It happens because our brain is faced with an unknown situation and focuses on its task: to ensure our survival.

Due to the hormones released during stress, we naturally react with a fight-flight-freeze response. This has been studied by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon. How do you deal with co-workers stuck in fight-flight-freeze mode?

Fight reaction

In a fight reaction, the person becomes defensive and confrontational. The person pressures you and judges harshly in relation to what happens. He/she may become sarcastic and try to convince everyone that he/she is right.


A colleague is afraid to participate in video conferences because he/she does not understand the technology. The person strongly opposes the proposal, saying: “It will never work. We’ve tried before and people joining the meeting from home got distracted or had poor sound quality. It doesn’t work.”

Break the pattern

You can help a person break out of the fight response by letting them express their anger. Active listening is particularly effective in this case. Summarize the content and acknowledge the feelings behind it. Show them you stand your ground. Match the tone (except when the other person is aggressive, in which case you must remain calm). Make it clear that you can handle this and create a safe atmosphere for them.

Enter the bad experience

“So you had a negative experience with this in the past, is that correct? I can understand why you’re skeptical. Care to explain what went wrong then?”

Flight reaction

In a flight reaction, the person wants to escape or avoid the situation. In the end, it is not possible for him/her to escape, but the body language shows signs of discomfort. The person tends to avoid the topic and seeks support from others who think the same as him/her. Taking on a victim role is common with this reaction.


The management team has communicated a change to generate more revenue. As a result, your colleague’s project has suddenly become a top priority with a tighter deadline. Your colleague comes to you and says: “did you see that they shortened the deadline? I can’t make it. Suddenly the project is important. They should have consulted me”

Break the pattern

The person is primarily afraid. You should therefore Inspire them to act as if they were not afraid. It helps to first acknowledge their concern and then paint a positive picture of the final outcome (share a vision).

Enter the previous situation

“So you are disappointed that they made this decision without consulting you? Imagine for a moment that this project becomes a huge success. And thanks to your efforts, we achieve a record revenue. Then the management team will definitely involve you in many more things in the future. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

Freeze reaction

In a freeze reaction, the person becomes unsure of what to do. He/she can literally freeze or react per automatic. It is difficult to get in touch with them.


You tell your team that there is no more work due to new government measures. Your team members are left with nothing to do. After a brief silence, an employee panics and says, “But how do I handle this with my kids? What do I do? I don’t know how to explain this at home. What will happen to our jobs?”

Break the pattern

People in a freeze state need time to recover. You can achieve this by creating a calm atmosphere, but it can also be helpful to encourage them. It is important not to push the person further, but to give them space by keeping their distance.

Manage the person’s reaction

“Everything will be fine. I’ll get us a cup of coffee and then we’ll sit down in 5 minutes and I can answer your questions.”

Pay attention to signals!

Each person experiences different emotions. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations, so their needs may also be different.

It is crucial that you are patient and calm in any conversation. Make sure you don’t get caught in a fight-flight-freeze reaction yourself. Create calm within yourself so that you remain open to the signals of others and respond effectively.

This is a crucial skill if you want to guide your team, colleagues or organization through change or crisis situations in a positive way. You can make a difference!

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