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  • Writer's pictureDayna Sharp, LCSW

Anger, Anxiety and You: The 3 Fs

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

Fight, Flight, Freeze. These are the "3 Fs". They are part of our body's survival system. When we are faced with a threat, we have an innate system built into our brain, our central nervous system and our body that reacts in a predictable attempt to survive. We typically react in one of 3 ways:


When a threat comes our way, we fight to protect ourselves! Think of it, it's thousands of years ago, you're in the woods, alone, and you find yourself face to face with a bear. It's clear that it's either him or you. What do you do? Chances are, without thought, your body reacts and you fight. In order to act quickly, your brain (the Amygdala) sounds the alarm, and messages the threat to your central nervous system. Chemicals and hormones are released so that your body becomes powerful--your heart beats quickly, your breath becomes shallow, your muscles tight. You are ready to fight, ready to survive victoriously!


Other times, when we are faced with a threat, we run away. Still thousands of years ago, you're in the woods alone, and you see a bear nearby. What do you do? You quickly and quietly run away! You escape the danger! Again, your Amygdala sounds the alarm, sends the message of threat, and your central nervous system provides the chemicals, hormones that allow you to run quickly!


There are still other times that the bear is too close to run, to large to fight. What can you do? Freeze. Play dead. Pretend that you're not there. Pray that the bear leaves you alone, because what else can you do? This too is a survival response. Because the Amygdala has sounded the alarm, the messages have been sent, the heart is beating, the breathing is shallow, the muscles are tight...but there's nothing to do with all of that. You have to lie still. Frozen. Thousands of years ago, when the bear does finally leave and you were safe again, you would likely engage in some physical activity to re-center your body. Maybe you would fight the bear, hunt for food, walk/run back to your tribe, etc.

Recognizing and Coping with Present Day 3 Fs

It's not thousands of years ago, and we don't usually find ourselves face to face with bears. So why do the 3 Fs matter?

The 3 Fs matter because our survival system is pretty much the same as it was thousands of years ago. What has changed is our day to day experience. We may not face outright threats like a bear, but our Amygdala still has a job to do--to search for danger and to sound the alarm!

What happens is that we often experience a threat in the form of anticipation (anxiety) or within the context of our relationships (anger). If you have a big presentation at work tomorrow, you may find yourself worrying if it will go well. Your Amygdala will pick this up as a potential threat, and send off the message to your central nervous system. Now you're having trouble breathing, your body is tight, your stomach is upset...but it's not a bear, it's a presentation, and you've got this! Maybe your significant other went out with their friends and didn't come home until later than expected. Perhaps your mind worried that they were not being honest about where they were. Maybe it triggered some fear of abandonment. Now the Amygdala has picked up on the threat of abandonment, and you're off and running. Maybe you feel nervous while they're out, trouble breathing, upset stomach...and maybe you feel more angry when they return, yelling, throwing, etc. You're in you're survival response. You're in the 3 Fs.

Kids and the 3 Fs

Because the survival system is innate in all of us, kids experience the 3 Fs too! Maybe it's about homework, or a school presentation. Maybe it's about separation from their parent. Maybe it's about self-regulation--they can't control their feelings and feel unsafe, bringing them into a 3 F, full-fledge meltdown. Check out this blog for more info on Kids and the 3 Fs, called "Don't Flip Your Lid!".

Getting out of the 3 Fs

A prerequisite to getting out of the 3 Fs is to make sure you're in safe situations. If you are not safe, your survival system is telling you something you need to hear. First things first, make sure your environment and relationships are physically and emotionally safe.

  • If you are indeed safe, getting out of the 3 Fs is only possible when you can recognize that you are in them. Now that you understand your survival system, you can recognize when you are in one of your 3 Fs, and you can also recognize what's happening in your body as a normal response to a threat.

  • Once you recognize the response, remind yourself that you are in survival mode, and that your goal is to get out.

  • Engage your innate brake of the central nervous system by practicing deep breathing.

  • Orient yourself. Find 3 things around you and notice them. Find 3 more things and notice the details of them.

  • Remind yourself that you are safe.

  • Engage in physical activity to re-center your body after being in a 3 F state.

  • When you return to balance, try to identify which of the 3 Fs you tend to use.

  • Explore whether there are patterns, or triggers, that tend to throw you into a 3 F state.

  • Read my blog post on "Affect Regulation".

  • Devise a plan to cope with patterns and triggers, whenever possible.

  • Practice, practice, practice with support from someone you trust.

Isn't it fascinating that talk therapy can actually help to re-balance your central nervous system? Creating Space Counseling and Wellness can offer a safe space for you to get to know yourself better, to understand the experiences within your mind and body, and to find balance, peace and freedom within your self.

Call today to schedule an appointment! 856-281-1664


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