ADHD and Emotional Self-Regulation: Fight, Flight, or Freeze

The response in all living things when they are threatened is fight, flight, or freeze. Fight back, run like heck, or play dead. It’s an innate instinct for all species because it’s really all about survival. When we feel threatened, the fight, flight, or freeze response is automatic. The brain spontaneously goes into that mode. When it comes to those with ADHD, regulating emotions is something they already have trouble with, and when that response kicks in, it can be quite problematic.

The problem for those with ADHD is that they may have had bad experiences and they feel the anticipation of a threat even if there isn’t one. They go into fight, flight, or freeze mode and they’re just completely stuck. It’s important to understand what this concept is and how it works so that they can understand the context of this biological response and the importance of engaging their executive functioning brain to override it.

Video Transcript:

Welcome everybody to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, ADHD and attention coach Jeff Copper, and I’m here today to talk about ADHD and emotions. In particular, one particular area that I think is really helpful to illuminate and that is all living things have a response when they are threatened and it’s fight, flight or freeze. Fight back, run like heck or to play dead if you will. And it’s a very key instinct for all species because it’s really all about survival. And the thing about the fight, flight or freeze automatic emotional response is when you feel threatened for your life, your brain automatically goes into that. And when it comes to those with ADHD, emotion is something that they need to regulate. And that automatic emotional response that kicks in sometimes can be pretty problematic.

Now what I’ve described so far is if you’re threatened with your life, that response is really pretty a good thing for the most part. I will pause and note that if you’re ever in any emergency training, the first thing they do is don’t panic and calm down. And the idea there is to actually stop for a moment, engage your executive functioning system to override those automatic emotions, but we’ll come back to that in a second.

Moving forward, the thing about this response that’s interesting is the brain really can’t tell the difference between a life threatening event and a threatening event like your boss yelling at you or some coworkers coming at you. It’s not life threatening, but many times for those with ADHD, that response is exactly the same. You go into that fight, flight or freeze. In other videos we’ve talked about thinking of the ADHD brain as a two level system, which is something that I learned from Dr. Barkley. There’s the automatic brain or the primitive brain, that fight, flight or freeze, and the executive functioning brain. That’s the part of the brain that’s the prefrontal cortex right here that when I’m working with those with ADHD, we’re trying to work with this particular area. And the thing about the executive functioning brain, it’s very effortful. It’s got to pause and override that automatic response and it’s not an easy thing to do, which is why those with ADHD have difficulty regulating attention and emotions.

But one of my points is that if you feel threatened, your brain will automatically go into that automatic response. And so often I find those with ADHD, they get paralyzed, they just shut down. It’s kind of like that play dead. And in that moment, they can’t even remember what works.

Another level that I would like to add to this is we have that life threatening event or that threatening event, but we also have the anticipation of an event. So if you have had a history of a particular situation where you walked into that you felt threatened, the anticipation of that coming up is the same as the threat or is the exact same as that life threatening event that I talked about earlier. The brain really just has one switch, on or off, and you go right into that.

And the problem with that is those with ADHD and often they’ve had bad experiences and they feel that anticipation of a threat, they go into fight, flight or freeze or paralyze and they’re just completely stuck in the water.

And so I think it’s really, really important to understand that what this concept is also understand, I learned from Dr. John Ratey when interviewing him, is that when you go into that response, the brain actually diverts resources and blood to the other parts of the emotional side of your brain in a way from the prefrontal cortex. That is to help explain why when you’re in that state, you can’t remember sometimes your own name. I’m just playing with that, but I have worked with a lot of people with ADHD where we’ve learned structures that will help them pay attention, but the problem is when they’re in that emotional state, that fight, flight or freeze, they can’t remember what works.

And in coaching also, often what we’re trying to do is help people learn how to pause and notice it and engage their executive functioning brain to override that. We’re going to have a sequel to that here in a little bit to talk about the mechanics of that, but for the most part, this video is really dedicated to understand that this biological response is built into every living creature. It’s there, but it’s no friend for those with ADHD because they have more difficulty regulating attention, they have more difficulty regulating emotion, and hence, when they feel threatened, they can go to a really tough place.

So, well, I hope you learned something from this edition of Attention Talk Radio. Look for our sequel. We’ll talk about what do you do now that you know that that’s there. So take care. If you haven’t done so already, subscribe to our YouTube channel at, and with that, we hope you enjoy.

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