Fight or Flight Worksheet: Free PDF and Guide

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

In this article I will be sharing my free fight or flight worksheet with you and explaining exactly how you can use to it help manage anxiety and panic symptoms.

I will also share some fight or flight response examples to help you put it all into context.

It will help you (or your child) understand the symptoms or anxiety and what you can do about them.

By demystifying the fight or flight response, I want to help you feel less scared by it and more in control.

Fight or Flight PDF: Download Yours HERE

Fight or Flight PDF Worksheet How-To Guide

First, take some time to familiarize yourself with the image of the body and the different symptoms marked on it.

Next, think about a situation that tends to trigger your panic or anxiety, and try to identify which symptoms you normally experience.

Once you have identified your symptoms, mark them on the symptoms page of your worksheet.

As you continue to use the worksheet, you can also make note of any triggers that tend to elicit a strong response from you.

Think about coping strategies or techniques that have been helpful in managing your symptoms.

The final page contains the 9 tips I have listed below, to manic your fight or flight symptoms.

woman holding her face fight or flight response

What is the Fight or Flight Response?

The fight or flight response is a natural physiological reaction to a perceived threat, whether real or imagined. It prepares the body to either fight or flee, to stay alive.

Symptoms of Fight or Flight

Fight or flight symptoms can be scary because the physical reaction is so powerful and overwhelming. But recognizing the symptoms can help you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.

Let’s say you’re walking in the woods and you suddenly hear a loud growling noise. Your body is likely to go into fight or flight mode.

Within milliseconds it prepares you to either fight the animal making the noise or run away as fast as you can.

The heart rate increases. It quickly pumps more blood to the muscles, preparing them to respond to the immediate threat.

The response is supported by chemical messengers called stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger a cascade of physical changes in the body, such as faster breathing, and heightened alertness.

Fight or Flight Diagram

The fight or flight diagram below is part of your fight or flight worksheet. Do print it out and put it somewhere prominent so you can remind yourself of the symptoms.

The important thing to remember is that fight or flight symptoms are temporary. They will pass once your body feels safe again. Usually, this takes only a few minutes.

fight or flight diagram

Fight or Flight Mode on Repeat

Whilst fight or flight can be beneficial in helping us cope with real dangers, if we have chronic stress or anxiety, fight or flight can be triggered too often.

In essence, our brains overestimate the danger regularly. Chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and physical health problems.

Therefore, it’s essential that we learn and practise techniques to sport and effectively manage the fight or flight response when we feel the symptoms kicking in.

Fight or Flight Mode: Alternative Bodily Responses

Whilst fight or flight is the best known stress response, there are other types of stress responses.

I want you to know about these so that you can spot them. They are all signs that you are under a lot of stress, and that it’s time to change aspects of your life and practise strategies for managing the symptoms.

Here are some examples:

  1. Freeze response: In some situations, our body may respond to stress by freezing or becoming still, rather than fighting or fleeing. This can be especially common if you have experienced trauma.
  2. Tend and befriend response: This is a stress response that is more common among women than men. It involves seeking social support and connection during times of stress, rather than fighting or fleeing.
  3. Withdrawal response: This can involve withdrawing from social situations, avoiding stressors, or becoming emotionally detached in response to stress.
  4. Mobilization response: This type of stress response can involve getting to work on a task or problem in order to deal with a stressor. It may involve increased focus and productivity, rather than physical activity.
  5. Exhaustion response: If stressors persist for a long time or if someone experiences chronic stress, they may eventually experience an exhaustion response. It can involve fatigue, burnout, and a sense of being overwhelmed.
teenage boy stressed head in hands fight or flight

Fight or Flight Mode: The Science

Sometimes it can be really helpful to understand the science behind the fight or flight response. If we can understand it, we are better placed to manage it.

So let’s take a quick deep-dive…

The autonomic nervous system is a complex network of nerves in your body that controls involuntary processes in your body. These include heart rate, digestion, and breathing.

It is divided into two main branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body’s fight or flight response. It increases heart rate, dilates the pupils, diverts blood flow to the muscles to help the body respond quickly to a threat, and is responsible for all the other symptoms you feel.

The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body’s “rest and digest” response.

Think of this as the opposite of fight or flight. It helps the body to recover and conserve energy.

It slows down heart rate, constricts the pupils, and stimulates digestion.

Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to maintain a delicate balance in your body. They ensure your organs and tissues receive the proper amount of stimulation to function well.


How to Get Out of Fight or Flight

Did you know that you have control over your nervous system?

You can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing and deepening your breathing, or relaxing your muscles.

Mindfulness meditation can also promote calm in your body and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest response).

Engaging in regular physical activity also keeps your nervous system healthy. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters, but it also reduces stress, which means your fight or flight response is less likely to be over-active.

Lastly, establishing a routine that includes sufficient sleep and healthy eating will also support your nervous system’s health and keep it in balance.

man walking through a park stressed anxious

Fight or Flight: 9 Tips For Managing Your Panic Symptoms

  1. Remember that fight or flight is a normal response. It’s just your body trying to keep you safe.
  2. Remember that you can learn to control the fight or flight response, for example by slowing your breathing. It takes time and practise.
  3. Know that the sensations will pass.
  4. If possible seek out a quiet and comfortable space to take a break and recharge.
  5. If you can, connect with a pet or animal, close family member or trusted friend to help you contain the response. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, this is a common and normal reaction.
  6. Very slow, deep breaths are your most powerful weapon against the fight or flight response. They tell your body that the danger has passed and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response).
  7. Engage your senses: Focus on something pleasant to look at, listen to, smell, taste, or touch to help shift your focus away from the fight or flight trigger.
  8. Distraction can be a helpful “in the moment” tool to get you through a fearful situation. For example, if you are scared of lifts (elevators) but need to get into one, sing your favourite song in your head (that’s my favourite technique!) or count backwards in 3s from 100. This will prevent your thoughts spiralling.
  9. Create a safety plan for yourself that includes coping strategies, support people/animals, and emergency contact information.
stressed teen girl walking down some steps

Fight or Flight: Real Danger Vs Worry

As we have already seen, it’s not just real danger that can trigger fight or flight.

Even when there is no danger at all, our thoughts can create imagined scenarios, “what if’s”, that feel just as real as actual dangers.

These can snowball and before we know it we are in full-on panic mode.

Here are some fight or flight examples that are based on imagined danger rather than real danger:

  1. Public speaking: The thought of giving a speech in front of a large audience can trigger a fight or flight response. You might think, “What if I mess up? What if everyone thinks I’m a terrible speaker? What if I forget what I’m supposed to say? What if I totally humiliate myself?” Sound familiar? Although it’s not a life-threatening situation, the body may respond as though it is.
  2. Taking a test: Again, this is not a life-threatening situation, but the body can easily be triggered into a survival response (fight or flight). Thoughts that can spiral and trigger fight or flight include: “What if I don’t know the answers? What if I go completely blank? What if I fail? What if everyone else does better than me?”
  3. Confrontation: Conflict and confrontation can be scary, but it’s not usually life threatening. We often have thoughts such as: “What if they get angry with me? What if they don’t want to talk to me anymore? What if I’m wrong and they get upset? What if they are verbally aggressive in response?”
high school students sitting a formal exam

Thoughts as Fight or Flight Triggers

Why do thoughts sometimes trigger fight or flight when there’s no danger to life?

In essence, our brains are still pretty primitive.

They evolved when there were many life threatening dangers around such as predators.

They didn’t evolve for modern-world scenarios like exams and tests.

Think of the fight or flight response as extremely simplistic, like a smoke alarm. It’s either fully triggered or not triggered at all.

There’s no middle ground.

A smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between burnt toast and a life-threatening fire. It triggers regardless.

Therefore, when you start to notice the symptoms of fight or flight coming on, it can be extremely helpful to practise saying (in your head): “It’s okay, it’s just my body over-reacting” or “It’s okay, it’s just my fight or flight response trying to protect me”.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex has evolved to give us incredible planning and organising skills.

But these skills also cause us to worry about the future and ruminate over things that have happened in the past.

These thoughts can be interpreted by the brain as potential threats and can easily trigger the stress response (fight, flight or freeze).

Fight or Flight Response Examples

Example 1: Cathy

Cathy, a 42-year-old mother of two, experienced heightened fight or flight symptoms during a particularly stressful week at work.

The trigger was an unexpected deadline for a project she was leading.

Her heart raced, her stomach churned, and she felt an overwhelming urge to escape the situation.

Recognizing these signs, Cathy decided to take control.

She started by practicing deep breathing exercises during her breaks, focusing on long, slow breaths to calm her nervous system.

Cathy also incorporated short walks outside, finding that the fresh air and movement helped to dissipate her stress.

By the end of the week, she noticed a significant reduction in her symptoms and felt more equipped to handle work pressures.

Example 2: Arthur

Arthur, a 16-year-old boy, found himself in the grip of regular fight or flight symptoms during his school exam period.

The thought of messing up his exams triggered a rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms, classic signs of anxiety.

Arthur felt a strong urge to flee from the exam room and felt panicky when he couldn’t.

Arthur used the fight or flight diagram to name his symptoms and this helped him feel more in control. He practiced mindfulness in the mornings, focusing on his breath and the present moment, which helped him feel more grounded.

On exam days, Arthur was able to complete the exams, using deep, slow breaths to regain control whenever he felt the fight or flight response kicking in.

Understanding Anxiety

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

Fight or Flight PDF Worksheet: Summary

Use your fight or flight pdf worksheet to help you (or your child) understand your symptoms and triggers better.

Practise using some of the tips I have given you to prevent fight or flight, or quickly bring it under control if it has already triggered.

It’s also important to learn to recognise thoughts that are triggering fight or flight.

Over time you can learn to calm these thoughts or to gently adapt them to help you keep calm.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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