We’ve all been there. The interviewer asks us a question that we’ve practiced many times, but this time, our anxiety takes over and we clam up. We rack our brains for some sort of coherent response. Nothing. Completely blank.
Maybe you’re good at interviews. Maybe you have the visceral physical response when going on a first date. Thoughts race through your head like, “They will think I’m unattractive” and “I’ll stutter over my words.” All you want to do is run. Escape from this situation to spare yourself the rejection.
This anxiety and fear exists for a reason. Humans evolved to have a fight, flight, or freeze response to alert us to danger. It helps us to act in these stressful situations . The physical response can vary — you might escape the situation, act impulsively, or freeze up. People with social anxiety can feel this type of intense physiological response when interacting with or in front of other people. Their brains trigger a response meant to help us in life-threatening situations for ones that aren’t actually dangerous.
If this sounds like you, you are not alone. In this post, we’ll explain which parts of your brain control these responses, how they might influence your behavior, and tips for gaining control over them.
The biology of fear
Many studies have been done to discover which brain regions are related to fear. When a region called the amygdala is damaged in snakes and rats, animals no longer showed fight or flight responses . In other experiments, animals that are exposed to a something fear-inducing (such as an electric shock) show activity in their amygdalae . Those same animals will then associate fear with this particular environment, and their amygdalae will activate without the harmful thing present. Humans also could have a visceral response to an environment or situation where something bad or embarrassing happened before.
In primate studies, damaging areas of the amygdala leads to “socially inhibited” behaviors . Because of this, scientists think that social anxiety could result from atypical activity in these regions. There have been human cases where people with severely damaged amygdalae had no fight, flight, or freeze response .
The purpose of “fight”
Humans have evolved the fight response so that they are ready to take down anything big and scary. If you’re attacked by a large animal in the wild, you might have to be ready to fight it! This response helps you to focus and give your muscles oxygen so that they can fight. This response might make you overly aggressive in situations that aren’t really threatening.
Common social anxiety-related fight behaviors include:
- becoming overly competitive while anxious
- adjusting body language to appear strong and stable (broadening your shoulders, keeping your chin up)
- overly preparing for an anxiety-provoking event like a presentation or small talk
- snapping at people while anxious
The biology of the Fight Response
Studies in humans and primates have shown that the amygdala is not the only part of the brain that influences feelings of anxiety. The prefrontal cortex (the brain region behind your forehead) also plays a part in regulating your emotions . This region is also key to your decision making, so abnormal activity in the PFC (due to damage, genetics, etc.) might lead to greater impulsivity in decision making when anxious. Because the PFC and amygdala are linked, changes in activity in one of them might affect the other.
Flight (or Escape) Response
The purpose of “flight”
Humans have evolved a flight instinct when presented with a scary thing in order to keep themselves safe! When you face something that could actually harm you, this instinct helps to alert you that leaving might keep you unharmed. That being said, in today’s world, many people feel this instinct when presented with a stimulus that won’t likely harm them.
Common social anxiety-related flight behaviors include:
- leaving the room to wash dishes or go to the bathroom
- giving an excuse to leave early from anxiety-provoking interactions
- changing the topic of conversation from one that is anxiety-provoking
- pretending to take a phone call
- stopping an activity that is anxiety-provoking
- adjusting body language to protect or hide your body (like folding your arms or closing in your posture)
The biology of the Flight Response
Science has linked the activation of the amygdala (see above) to release of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland above your kidney . Release of cortisol increases blood pressure (to get blood to your limbs) and increases blood sugar (to give you energy to run away). The body now has available energy to sprint away from a threat. Cortisol release also suppresses your immune system, so if you are frequently stressed or anxious, you might get sick.
The purpose of “freeze”
The freeze response allows people to quickly assess a dangerous situation. It gives us time to decide to fight or run away. When prey has been caught and feels helpless, it freezes in order to fake death, which might give it an opportunity to escape. Likewise, people with social anxiety might feel helpless while interacting with other people, so they freeze to decide what to do next or to not draw attention to themselves.
Common social anxiety-related freeze behaviors include:
- blanking out (having your mind go completely blank)
- clamming up (not knowing what to say or being able to speak)
- physical shutdown or fainting
The biology of the Fear Response
Studies show that particular connections from the periaqueductal grey (brain region located along the spine) to the pyramis at the base of your skull are integral to the freeze response . When these connections are activated, it causes the body to freeze. They can be activated by things that are actually dangerous and by things that aren’t, so even irrational fears can cause us to freeze. While giving a presentation, you might not actually be in danger, but your body responds like it is and causes you to clam up.
Tips for managing the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response
So, great. I know that the fight, flight, or freeze response is important when I am actually in danger, but how do I get rid of it when I’m not really in danger?
- Identify anxiety-provoking thoughts and ground them in reality. Try to identify what exactly you’re afraid will happen. Often times, we automatically assume the worse case scenario will happen. Once you identify your fears or anxious thoughts, you can ask whether they are actually true, or if you might be jumping to conclusions.
- Examples of these thoughts could be: “This interviewer is judging me,” “ I sound incompetent,” “I will not get this job,”and “I will never get a job.”
- A more realistic view of this situation might be, “This interviewer wants me to succeed. I might not have answered that question perfectly, but I did answer it okay. There is no way I can know what they are looking for, and if I don’t get this job, I will find another one.”
- Take a few deep breaths .Deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve to relax you. It will give you time and space to process what is actually happening.
- Ask yourself “What would I tell a friend in this situation?” Asking this question will help you to view the situation objectively, instead of through an emotional lens. Even asking others for advice might give you perspectives that you haven’t considered before.
- Get help. Managing these intense physical responses might seem overwhelming or too difficult to do on your own. If so, some of these solutions could help:
- Joyable – CBT for Social Anxiety
- Mindfulness Resources
- See a Physician
- Many more. Here are some resources for tips to reduce this fight, flight, or freeze response!
Kylie is a Client Coach at Joyable, working to help people move toward a life without social anxiety. Presenting and meeting new people often cause her to freeze up, but she tap dances, drinks coffee, and watches the cooking channel with reckless abandon.
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