Battle the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

By Alyson Connolly

The fight, flight, or freeze response can do some wild things to your mind when you’re facing a fear of public speaking. What are some things your body can do to fight back? This article includes exercises that will help you regain control when you step in front of those bright lights.

Exercise: Assume the position

Stand upright in a neutral position. Feel roots growing down to the earth from the bottom of your feet while the rest of your body is growing up to the sky. Now slouch down and droop, like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. Try to walk around the room in this position. What happens to your pace? Where’s your focus? What are your thoughts? Put one hand on your lower abs and one on your upper chest. Breathe in and out. What hand moves first when you are breathing in?

Give your body a good shake and return to your normal stance. Now stand as tall as you can, with your chest out, and walk around the room again. Notice your pace. Are you moving faster? Is your focus more focused outward, at the world? Where does your breath feel like it’s coming in when you inhale? Are you dropping it deeper into your lower abs? What are you thinking about? What are some words that can describe this feeling?

When you hold your head up and stand tall it sends a message to the brain that you are strong and confident, so you actually begin to feel more confident. Before, when you were Shaggy and your body was contracted and slouchy, you were instinctually taking up less room, and your voice sounded smaller and less confident.

In my workshops, one of the exercises I use to explore the difference in the positions I call in and down (slouched) and up and out (tall with head held high) involves role play. Each group pairs off and decides to play out a scenario with a problem. For example, it could be a boss reprimanding an employee who always comes late to work.

The pair then decides which one will be in an in and down position and who will be in an up and out position. They tend to conclude that it’s more likely the boss would maintain the up and out pose and the lowly employee the down and in. They role-play for a few minutes and then I ask them to keep the characters and problem but switch their body positions.

What happens is interesting. In an up and out position the boss is confident, can articulate clearly why arriving late is a problem, and comes up with solutions — such as set an alarm clock. When she’s in a down and in position, though, she can’t make eye contact, has trouble stringing two sentences together, and just wants to get the heck out of there.

When the employee is in the down and in position she feels bad and has little self-esteem, and might even feel that she’s going to get fired. When she’s in the up and out position, she wonders why there is a problem. She thinks clearly and comes up with answers.

Exercise: Stand up with less effort

Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Put your hand on the back of your neck. Now try to stand up. Are your neck muscles tightening? Do you feel your neck pull forward? Your neck is just an innocent bystander and it shouldn’t be involved when you stand up. The Alexander Technique, created by Frederick Matthais Alexander, is a process of initiating movement with ease. We can move in a more comfortable way with no strain.

So, try it again. Sit in a chair, with your hand on your neck. Start to stand up. When you feel a pull from your neck, just roll your neck slightly forward until you don’t feel the pull. Then stand. Doesn’t that feel easier? It takes less effort, and your neck will thank you.

As you probably know, you don’t need to be standing in front of 1,000 people to feel anxious. Sitting around a conference table explaining the goings on in your department can do it. So sit up straight! A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology held a test for body posture and self-evaluation. Participants were asked to write down their strengths and weaknesses. When they were slumped in a down and in position, they were not as articulate and had difficulty listing their strengths. Those who sat up straight with their feet flat on the floor in an up and out posture wrote more positive qualities about themselves.

Changing your posture can also change your mood about things, which may be particularly important when you need to include your input in something. When you’re in a slumped position sitting around the boardroom table, you’re more likely to be persuaded by others even if you know that your idea is better.