#256 - Fight-Flight-Freeze Response and Sensory Processing Challenges

by Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC May 17, 2023

#256 - Fight-Flight-Freeze Response and Sensory Processing Challenges

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Fight-Flight-Freeze Response and Sensory Processing Challenges

We recently completed a 2-on-1 mentoring session with a mother who described her son as “continually shutting down - won’t talk and won’t participate in anything.”

Sounds very similar to the FREEZE response in fight-flight-freeze.

The fight-flight-freeze response is a physiological response to stress, or to danger. Our children who have experienced trauma, or experience sensory overstimulation, often experience this stress response.

We give you some tips and tricks to help proactively manage this as well as in-the-moment strategies.

We’d love to answer your questions on the podcast! Fill out this form -> https://harkla.typeform.com/to/ItWxQNP3

Looking for more in-depth help? Sign up for 2-on-1 Mentoring With Us!!

Links

All Things Sensory Podcast Instagram

Harkla YouTube Channel

Harkla Website - Shop Sensory Products!

Harkla Instagram

Healthline Article

Episode 199 - The Covid Regression

Episode 172 - Diving into Trauma

Episode 242 - The Overstimulated Parent’s Guide

 

Fight-Flight-Freeze Response and Sensory Processing Challenges

Parents may find it difficult to comprehend why children react unpredictably when under stress. Typically, this reaction is referred to as the fight-flight-freeze response.

We aim to provide you with effective strategies that can assist you in supporting your child if they experience the fight-flight-freeze response. Additionally, we will explain what this response is, its significance, and how it can manifest in children, helping you understand your child's behavior better.

The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

When our bodies sense a threat or stress, we experience a physiological response commonly referred to as the fight-flight response. Healthline states that this response is an active defense mechanism where our heart rate increases, oxygen flow to major muscles is boosted, pain perception decreases, and hearing becomes more acute.

The fight-flight-freeze response is not a deliberate decision but rather an automatic reaction that occurs when the sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response, while the parasympathetic nervous system triggers the freeze response. How we respond in stressful situations may depend on which system dominates the response at that time.

Usually, when the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated, the body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol; however, our bodies are not designed to maintain this state constantly. If your child live in a perpetual fight-flight-freeze mode, it can lead to high levels of stress and have negative implications for our daily lives.

What Are The Characteristics Of Fight-Flight-Freeze Responses?

Children with sensory processing challenges may display an exaggerated fight-flight-freeze response as their bodies are already in a heightened state of arousal due to the over- or under-stimulation of their sensory systems. They may display behaviors such as angry outbursts, avoidance, clinging, and/or tantrums in order to cope with this stress.

The fight response is what you might expect – the person will physically fight to protect themselves. It can manifest as aggressive behavior such as hitting, kicking, spitting, yelling, and crying.

The flight response involves elopement, where the child runs away from the activity or the adult, hides, or refuses to participate in a specific activity or avoid a situation due to overstimulation.

The freeze response is a blend of both fight and flight where the person may become immobile or unresponsive during times of stress. It may be characterized by shutting down where the child is unable to communicate, may not respond to any attempts at communication, and cannot explain why they are unable to communicate.

Parents should be mindful of their child's responses to stress and learn to recognize signs of feeling overwhelmed. It's crucial to understand that these responses are not intentional but rather reflexive and can be managed with the right strategies.

Strategies For Assisting Your Child's Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

Children may struggle with feelings of emotional safety within their environment or in their own body. This can be due to the retention of primitive reflexes and lower brain stem processing during a child's development.

This dysregulated state can also affect the nervous system's ability to organize itself. So, it's important that parents have strategies in place to support their child before becoming extremely overwhelmed, here are a few strategies:

Provide Structure

Help your child build a sense of security with a predictable routine that can provide comfort when they are feeling overwhelmed or dysregulated. Make sure to include breaks throughout the day for physical activities where they can get a sense of control.

Create A Safe Space

Creating a safe space for your child can help reduce feelings of fear and anxiety when triggered. This could be in the form of a blanket fort or a cozy corner where your child can escape to when they feel overwhelmed.

Identifying And Modeling Emotional Awareness

It is essential to acknowledge and express your emotions out loud when your child is around, even if they're unpleasant, and show how you apply coping strategies during those tough times. For instance, you may be stressed during dinner due to the noisy environment and cooking while your child is talking to you.

You could pause what you're doing and tell your child, "I'm feeling overwhelmed right now. I need to take a five-minute break outside. I'll be back in a bit." After coming back, you share how much better you feel.

Co-regulation And Empathy

Maintaining a calm composure and showing empathy to your child is crucial when they are dysregulated. Assure them that it's okay to feel overwhelmed and use techniques like gentle touch, eye contact, and breathing exercises, both verbal and nonverbal, to assist them in regulating their emotions.

Connection Through Interests

Enter their world and support them while learning something new from them. Get down to their level and engage in activities that interest them. By engaging with your child in this manner, it can boost their self-esteem and confidence.

Strategies To Stimulate The Senses And Ease Fight-Flight-Freeze Response

The proprioceptive senses play a significant role in promoting calmness and grounding and are stimulated through activities like crawling, compression swings, deep pressure, big hugs, jumping on beanbags, and experiencing vibration. These activities help regulate the nervous system, release tension, and instill a sense of calm and control.

Oral motor input is another effective method for regulating the body. This type of input provides proprioceptive stimulation to the oral structures and can be achieved through activities such as drinking a smoothie through a straw, blowing bubbles, exhaling a cotton ball on the floor with a straw, chewing gum, or sucking on hard candy (if it's safe to do so).

Here are a few more sensory recommendations:

  • Focus on keeping the lights low and avoid fluorescent lights
  • Keep the sounds
  • Get creative with storage to remove visual clutter
  • Use therapeutic listening like Advanced Brain Technologies or Safe and Sound Protocol in the background of the bedroom.

By understanding the fight-flight-freeze response and providing the right strategies, parents can recognize when their child is overwhelmed or dysregulated and intervene in an appropriate manner. We hope that these tips have been helpful to understanding this complex behavior, and we wish you all the best on your journey of parenting a child with sensory processing challenges.


 

 

BORING, BUT NECESSARY LEGAL DISCLAIMERS

While we make every effort to share correct information, we are still learning. We will double check all of our facts but realize that medicine is a constantly changing science and art. One doctor / therapist may have a different way of doing things from another. We are simply presenting our views and opinions on how to address common sensory challenges, health related difficulties and what we have found to be beneficial that will be as evidenced based as possible. By listening to this podcast, you agree not to use this podcast as medical advice to treat any medical condition in either yourself or your children. Consult your child’s pediatrician/ therapist for any medical issues that he or she may be having. This entire disclaimer also applies to any guests or contributors to the podcast. Under no circumstances shall Rachel Harrington, Harkla, Jessica Hill, or any guests or contributors to the podcast, as well as any employees, associates, or affiliates of Harkla, be responsible for damages arising from use of the podcast.

Keep in mind that we may receive commissions when you click our links and make purchases. However, this does not impact our reviews and comparisons. We try our best to keep things fair and balanced, in order to help you make the best choice for you.


This podcast should not be used in any legal capacity whatsoever, including but not limited to establishing “standard of care” in a legal sense or as a basis for expert witness testimony. No guarantee is given regarding the accuracy of any statements or opinions made on the podcast.

Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC
Jessica Hill, COTA/L & Rachel Harrington, COTA/L, AC

Rachel Harrington, COTA/l, AC, CPRCS, and Jessica Hill, COTA/L, CPRCS are Harkla's in-house Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTA) and Certified Primitive Reflex Clinical Specialists. They have been working with children for over 6 years in outpatient settings. They specialize in creating easy-to-digest, actionable content that families can use to help their child's progress at home. Jessica and Rachel are the in-house experts, content creators, and podcast hosts at Harkla! To learn more about Jessica and Rachel, visit the Harkla About Us Page. Make sure to listen to their weekly podcast, All Things Sensory by Harkla for actionable, fun advice on child development.


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