Fight, flight or freeze? Getting yourself out of survival mode

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Teachers – like many others – will be feeling the pressure and stress of the current crisis and may be operating in survival mode. Shahana Knight offers wellbeing advice to help you manage your work, family and mental health

It is safe to say that the mental and emotional pressure on young people, parents/carers and teachers has increased during the coronavirus outbreak. This is something we need to acknowledge and address to prevent this new normal from becoming overwhelming.

Indeed, coronavirus might well be sending us into survival mode. When we are stressed or worried about something, our bodies feel that stress and our brain responds. When our survival brain is on, our thinking brain turns off.

Our thinking brain helps us to make rational decisions, empathise with others, reason and reflect on our behaviour, the situation or our feelings and helps us to recall information.

It can have a negative impact on our wellbeing and mental health if we stay in survival mode too long.

In survival mode, we respond by using survival methods of fight, flight and freeze. This is our brain's way of dealing with the stress and the feeling of being threatened. These three modes can affect our behaviour and responses. It is important to recognise that you, your children and your family members may all be working from their survival brain at times during this epidemic. Do you recognise some of the behaviours below?

Fight mode: You want to fight back or do something active to protect yourself. You might be getting into heated discussions or arguing with loved ones more. You may feel snappy or frustrated – perhaps losing your temper – and feel that your tolerance levels are lower. Or you might want to do something pro-active like stocking up on your shopping or finance planning.

Flight mode: You want to get away from the situation or avoid it. If you resort to flight mode you may feel overwhelmed and you may walk out of the room when people discuss the virus or walk away from people when you feel stressed. You might avoid the news and reports. You might also become overwhelmed with the stress of having to teach your children, work from home or continue being in lockdown. People in flight mode may need alone time.

Freeze mode: You can often feel like you are not sure what to do. You may shut down. You might be indecisive and unsure of yourself or your decisions. Negative thoughts and worry might become overwhelming and you might feel numb or lost. You know you should do something but are not sure what. People in freeze mode might stare into space for long periods of time, take longer to respond, and seem to not care about a situation.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Shahana Knight and TPC Therapy have published a free resource offering ideas and advice for parents relating to behaviour, wellbeing, stress and anxiety, as well as ideas for what we can do to support children, activities and meditations. Download this by clicking here or on the button at the end of this article.

The effects

Perhaps the most important thing to know is that when your survival brain is on, your rational reflective thinking brain is not. As a result, when we are working from our survival brain it can often impair our better judgement and affect our responses in a negative way. If you are finding you are getting more irritable, it might make it harder to respond calmly to your child who is struggling with their learning, or if you are in flight mode you may avoid getting your finances in order for fear of having to face the low balance in your bank account.

Taking actions to look after the mental health and wellbeing of yourself and your loved ones is important during this time. Especially while you are juggling so many different and unfamiliar challenges.

Some ideas to try

Here are some simple things you can do to reduce the levels of stress and take back some control of your mindset and wellbeing.

1, Identify when you are in survival mode

It is important for you to be able to identify when you are in fight, flight or freeze. If you can recognise when your behaviours are influenced by the survival brain, then you will be in a better position to take back control and reduce the levels of stress (so that your thinking brain will come back on). Recognise your feelings first. Are you feeling worried about going to the shops? Are you becoming more frustrated with your children? Are you feeling anxious about supporting your school staff? Once you are aware of your feelings you can identify whether some of your behaviours are linked to fight-flight-freeze and purposely take action to calm down your brain and reduce your stress levels.

2, Turn off the news

What you allow into your consciousness will affect your thoughts and mindset. Overly exposing both yourself and your family to the news will only increase the feeling of threat. Yes, it is important to be informed but do not allow this to become all-consuming. Turn off the news and the reports, stop reading articles on your phone 24/7 and following stories on social media. This is even more important for your children. Their minds may not be able to make sense of the adult content in the news and instead will pick out key buzzwords or conclusions that will cause anxiety and stress. They will also pick up on your tone of voice and behaviours.

3, Focus on your wellbeing

You might not be able to control what is happening, but you can control your responses. Imagine your home is a safe nest in which you can create any environment you wish. When you look back on this time in a few years, what do you want to remember?

You are not your thoughts, you get to decide what you think about. You get to decide how you respond. Give your family and yourself the opportunity to create special memories together during this time. Cook together, listen to music, dance around, be playful, watch movies, get fresh air. There are so many things to be thankful for, do not miss them by focusing on the worry and fear. Below are some tips for keeping a positive mindset:

  • Every night before bed, write down five things you are thankful for (reread this every week).
  • Listen to music and dance. This will increase your happy hormones and kill off stress hormones.
  • Do something for you. Draw, paint, read, write, garden. Something that makes you feel good will help refocus your mind and make you feel in control.
  • Meditate and focus your mind on positive thoughts. Doing this each night can help to reduce stress and improve sleep (there is a meditation in the free download).
  • Take the pressure off yourself. If you want to sit and watch a movie all day with the kids in your pjs then that is okay! As long as you are all happy, calm and together.
  • Sleep: This is the best way to reduce stress and to increase your feelings of happiness. Go to bed every night before 10:30pm and wake up to an alarm every day before 8am. It will help you feel like there is structure to your day and will have a positive impact on your wellbeing.

4, Teaching your own children?

I have spoken to so many teachers and headteachers who are struggling to home-school their children. Putting pressure on yourself to teach your children full-time can add to the stress and can feel impossible when juggling your other responsibilities. Balance is key. Do not try to do too much and let your child’s school keep control of their learning.

And remember: you are in the unique position of being their primary care-giver. The person who can make them feel safe, secure, valued and loved. You are teaching your child every time you tell them they can do something. Playing with them is teaching them that they are loved and people want to be with them. Encouraging them is teaching them that they can do anything if only they do not give up! These are lessons that go far beyond the classroom.


Things are uncertain and unknown. So focus on what you are certain about – the people you love, the memories you can make, the difference you can make, the impact you can have.

  • Shahana Knight is director at TPC Therapy, a mental health service for children. She also sits on a foster care panel, is a school governor and a clinical play therapist. The advice offered here is linked to her Therapeutic Teaching Programme. Visit and read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

Further information

  • TPC Therapy has published a free resource offering ideas and advice for parents relating to behaviour, wellbeing, stress and anxiety, as well as ideas for what we can do to support children, activities and meditations. Download this by clicking the button below.
  • TPC Therapy has released a free course – entitled Preparing to support your children after lockdown – for all school leaders and teachers. It includes an accredited CPD module on childhood trauma and the brain. To take this free course and learn more, visit

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