Fight, Flight, Freeze: How Your Teams Respond to Adversity & Change

Why is it that we react so differently from each other when presented with the same information or set of circumstances?

In this article our Founder & CEO, Zoe Williams, guides you through 3 neuropsychological responses to stress and layouts some useful guidelines on how you can support your team members according to their individual needs.


In 2020, the drastic switch to a mandatory remote working situation forced us to disconnect from our families, work colleagues, and the wider human population. 


Being social animals, we are biologically and psychologically programmed to be around others and have the desire to engage with one another.


What happens if these needs are not met?


We experience anxiety, stress, apathy and dissociative behaviour.


During this article, I will be using the context of the pandemic, due to it being the best mass human case study, to look at human behavior under stress. 


Since the initial lockdowns, multiple studies have been conducted on the long-term effect of COVID, psychologically and physiologically. However, this article will be used to share what I found when working with newly formed online teams at various organisations during this period.


Fight, Flight and Freeze


When we get stressed, there are different emotional states we go into. Fight, Flight and Freeze is a subconscious response to stress controlled by our brain and our nervous system. The challenging thing about these stress responses is that we’re not usually aware of them happening within us. Part of the stress response is designed to reduce our level of self awareness therefore, we become much more reactive and on autopilot


Stimulus process


The brain receives an input of information. For instance, an email or a phone call or some news about a project perhaps – the brain has to interpret that information and needs to decide if it’s good or bad, useful or useless, and what to do with it. 


We have 80,000 subconscious thoughts a day.  80% of those thoughts are repetitive or negative


Activated nervous system response


The chances of us judging new information as negative is extremely high. When this happens, the brain sends cortisol and adrenaline, which are stress hormones to the body warning it of danger. Remember, this could be because of something as simple as an email or a telephone call, but our brain is interpreting it as something that we need to actually fight, flight or freeze from. 




People who respond this way are most noticeable. They’re the ones that go into fight response mode and move towards “the danger”. 


These people go into problem solving mode. They really want to get their hands dirty and figure out how to deal with the situation. 


In the corporate world, we prefer fight responders, because they work well under stress, they work well under pressure, and they are normally seen as high performers


These individuals often come up with big ideas, they’ve got big motivation, big energy to resolve the problems around them, especially the problems that were being caused by the pandemic. They were the ones that would have gone into execution mode. 


After a period of months, however, they probably reached a point of burnout during the early stages of the pandemic. They might have withdrawn and you might have noticed that their performance has dropped. They’ve had so much cortisol and adrenaline in their body and they’ve been pushing themselves so hard to fight through the pandemic and through the change, that their body has neglected from sending them a signal to stop for a break. 


How to support Fight responders


Reach out to them and provide support from an energy perspective.


Offer them respite, take some work off them, even delegate work to other people in the team, ask other members of the team who maybe weren’t in this state for such a long time to support these individuals. Like I said, checking in is very important, so let them talk about how they’re feeling. 



Procrastination is a freeze response that is visible. You might see a person’s delivery and/or execution slow down or even stop. Individuals who experience the freeze response get really anxious. This anxiety makes the freeze response heightened. They get caught in a fear loop because of what their brain is “catastrophizing” of the situation. 


However, there’s good news about freeze responders. A freeze responder understands the need to still have action be taken, they probably would delegate or they ask for support and they lean on others. So, although they’re feeling the need to freeze, they understand that they still need to create momentum around them. 


How to support freeze responders

Provide them with support and most importantly, reduce the overwhelm, as previously mentioned, the anxiety will cause them to catastrophize and feel overwhelmed. By breaking down projects and tasks into smaller parts you can really help people who are in freeze survival mode. 



This might be the most problematic state for someone to get into through change. They are the ones that would have asked for a furlough, they would have asked for redundancy, and they may have even resigned. Potentially, they are the ones that would have gone off work sick because they actually just want to get away from the cause of the stress. 


Flight responders literally want to run away from it and remove themselves from the environment completely. Those are definitely the ones that need an arm put around them very quickly. They will be trying to remove themselves from the stressful situation and from the change. 


How to support flight responders

Put an arm around (if not possible, a virtual arm), listen to how they’re feeling, try and get them to open up without feeling judged. They need to be calmed and reassured so have your reassuring words or reassurance calm their nervous system down. 


When someone is in-flight response the best approach is reassurance and a period of time where expectations to deliver are removed. 


This is a short term loss to protect the long term. And you might think gosh, I can’t afford to give people who are in flight response a break or time off, but really resilience and stress management and change management is about noticing when individuals or teams need to be given a break in the short term to protect the medium long term delivery.


Fight, Flight and Freeze responses are how our brain keeps us “safe” in potentially dangerous situations. Understanding the mechanisms behind these responses can help us be aware of and regulate our emotions in an appropriate and healthy way.


Emotional intelligence & compassion


Connection and community make us feel safe, less exposed, and more supported. During times of change when we’re really emotionally heightened and there is uncertainty going on around us, we need as much of this reassurance as we can possibly get from the people around us.


How can you guide your team through a challenging time?


  1. Non-work related conversations

It really helps to find a trusted colleague or a person that you could confide in and have a calm conversation about non-work related things.


  1. Use different channels

It’s really important that we’re checking in on our teams and not over Zoom. People are getting Zoom or team fatigue and interacting with people on a screen uses a different type of energy than interacting with people physically. 


It’s good to be more casual in our interactions by maybe dropping them a telephone call, sending them an encouraging message or a voice note, because then they can listen to it at their own leisure. 


  1. Check-in on the well being of your teams

Knowing how they feel is more essential than ever. These waves of emotion are definitely making leadership and management harder at the moment. 


People are really craving connection. They’re craving conversation. They’re craving things that are less structured and more relaxed and inflow. You won’t necessarily know which emotional state different people are in.

As I explained in my recent article on the change curve, everyone moves through change at a different pace, they might move forward and then move backward for a period, it’s never a linear process.



To learn more about how we can take your organisation on the Emotional Intelligence Evolution please get in contact with us via email at

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Zoe Williams, Founder & CEO