5 Activities to bring a child out of fight-or-flight
The fear response is something that we will all have experienced. But how can we help children to feel safe and recover from the fear response?
Fight, flight, freeze or collapse are survival modes that are wired into all human beings.
These survival modes derive from early evolution which allowed humans to detect danger and respond quickly to life-threatening situations, such as a predator. Despite the stressors being very different in today's modern society, our fear response hasn't really evolved.
This fear response is something that you will probably have experienced. Since the amygdala - the part of the brain that is responsible for your fight, flight, freeze or collapse response - doesn’t know the difference between a real and a perceived threat, it’s not uncommon to experience this response to things that in hindsight, are not that scary at all – like an email from your boss requesting a meeting, for example. When your stress response is triggered, you may experience a racing heart, sweaty palms, and quick breathing.
Children and young people in care who have experienced complex trauma will likely have an overactive amygdala, which continually signals danger even when they’re safe. This is a way in which a child’s brain has adapted to survive trauma.
What is fight, flight, freeze and collapse?
The fear response occurs as a result of acute stress, which triggers the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and a sudden release of hormones. These hormones trigger the release of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol.
This reaction results in increased blood pressure, breathing rate, and heart rate. Generally, it takes between twenty minutes and an hour for the parasympathetic nervous system to return to a normal state once the threat is removed. That’s assuming the person has not experienced trauma and is able to effectively manage and cope with their emotions – also referred to as the ‘window of tolerance’.
The fear response is crucial for dealing with serious dangers in our environment, and has played an enormous role in helping humans survive. When under threat, this response gets the body ready to either run away or fight the danger.
However, while fight, flight, freeze or collapse is an automatic response, it doesn't always respond to the here and now, nor is it under our conscious control. It is possible for the body to have this fear response even if there is no real threat present. This is because the fear response can be triggered by real and perceived threats, including in situations that may slightly remind us of a fearful past experience.
For those who have survived acute or complex trauma, it can take much longer to return to a normal state, and often requires specific conscious intervention. These people generally experience a much higher baseline of stress, leaving them more reactive to day-to-day situations which can be triggered by feelings, events, sensory information and people – often things they’re not even consciously aware of at the time. This is something often experienced by those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (or ‘PTSD’) or other forms of complex trauma.
Chronic stress can also have a long-term impact on physical health, such as an increased risk of depression, headaches, migraines, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gastrointestinal issues, heart attack, and stroke. This can happen when somebody is in a constant fight or flight state and can be one of the long-term effects of childhood trauma.
Grounding techniques to help bring a child out of 'Fight or Flight'
As a foster parent, the fight, flight, freeze or collapse response is something that you need to understand when caring for children with histories of abuse or neglect. Grounding techniques can help your child get back to the present and bring their body back into the normal state so that you can work through whatever has triggered the response together.
Remember, when a child is outside their window of tolerance, they're in survival mode and unable to access the higher parts of their brain that are responsible for thinking, feeling, learning and memory. These grounding techniques are an essential first step to help bring a child back into a calm state, before you can help them move forward by talking about what happened, for example.
Some grounding techniques that you can try to help your child recover from the fear response include...
1) Deep Breathing Exercises
There are several deep breathing exercises that can be used to help anybody, including children, get out of fight or flight. Breathing deeply into the lungs slows down the heart rate and signals to the body that there is no threat, and that the parasympathetic nervous system can return to a normal state.
It is a good idea to spend some time with the young person in your care trying out different breathing exercises to find one that they find easy and remind them to do this when they are becoming activated. It's also useful to coach them through it by breathing with them.
A simple breathing exercise that anybody can do is to breathe in through the nose for a count of five, hold the breath for a count of two, and then breathe out through the mouth for a count of seven. Repeat as many times as is necessary to return to a normal state.
There are lots of YouTube videos on breathing exercises for kids. Or apps like Calm and Mind are full of quick and easy meditation practices.
2) Sensory Exercises
Sensory techniques can also be very effective in helping to ground children who are in fight or flight. Looking around them, touching, hearing, seeing, and feeling their surroundings can help to bring a child who is in a fearful state back into the present. This is also a good technique to use to help children who get flashbacks.
With this grounding technique, ask them to find:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can feel
- 3 things they can hear
- 2 things they can smell
- 1 thing they can taste
This grounding technique can be repeated as many times as is needed to calm the nervous system.
3) Rhythmic Movement
Anyone who has comforted a crying baby will know just how soothing rhythmic movement can be.
Rhythmic movement such as running, dancing and drumming helps to integrate the child’s mind and body, reset the nervous system and bring the child back into a state of calm. Activities should be easily accessible, relevant to the child’s ability, and full of simple, repetitive, familiar and gentle movement.
These kinds of activities can be even more powerful if they also involve ‘bilateral stimulation’, which gets the left and right hemispheres of the brain coordinating with one another again. So when a child goes into fight, flight, freeze or collapse, rhythmic and bilateral movements help the brain to redirect the resources that had rushed to the amygdala for survival, back to the higher functioning parts of the brain.
Other simple soothing activities could be swinging, rolling back and forth on an exercise ball, or sitting in a rocking chair. It works for grown-ups too – are you soothed by knitting, playing a musical instrument, swimming or gardening?
Music can be an ideal aid in helping a child become more grounded. Children can use headphones to listen to music to help them feel calmer and more in control, or you may want to suggest singing a song together, with the aim to help them breathe deeper. Any music that your child likes can help with grounding, but it can be useful to find music that has been composed specifically to have a calming effect on the mind.
The fear response can come with various physical symptoms, including rushes of adrenaline and muscle tension. Exercising, such as getting out in the fresh air for a short walk, can be an ideal grounding exercise. You can also do mindfulness exercises, where you ask your child to notice things around them while out walking. Focusing on safe things, like trees and flowers, can help bring a child who is in fight, flight, freeze or collapse back down to earth and encourage their body into a calmer and more neutral state.
There are other therapeutic interventions that foster parents may wish to explore to help bring a child out of the fight-or-flight stress response, such as tapping or the butterfly hug. However, foster parents should be trained in these techniques, and young people should feel confident using them in a calm state before using them in the moment.
Other ways you can help
Depending on the history of the child in your care, their body may have a faster automatic fear response than you are used to. As a foster parent, the most important thing you can offer the child in your care is a warm, affirming, secure and consistent relationship with you.
You can also help by taking steps to ensure that your child has a secure, safe, and positive environment at home.
Often, children in care have been let down by the people who were meant to care for them and keep them safe. It’s therefore understandable that they may find it difficult to trust adults. But without a solid foundation of trust, therapeutic interventions simply won’t work.
Building trust takes time and consistency. So that means showing up for your young person and doing what you say you will. It also requires heaps of empathy, patience and persistence, especially when you feel like you’re taking one step forward and three steps back.
But as a foster parent, it’s important that you understand that these children have to trust you and know that you’re going to stick around before they can let their guard down and open themselves up to more potential hurt and disappointment.
Holding space for your child’s feelings and seeing things from their point of view in any situation cultivates a positive, secure environment where they will trust you to be there for them. This is essential in ensuring that moving into the foster home is no longer something that the child perceives to be a threat, but as something positive for them.
Validating your child’s emotions and feelings is crucial in ensuring that they feel seen, heard, and understood in your home, ultimately creating a sense of safety for them to work through feelings as they arise before they get big enough to be perceived as a threat.
Fight, flight, freeze or collapse is the human body’s automatic response to threats and stressors. It may be more pronounced in a child with a traumatic or unstable background. Grounding exercises and providing a secure, supportive environment can help.