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Praxis Nik

Tim Nik – Privatpraxis für Psycho- und Sexualtherapie (nach Heilpraktikergesetz)

Understanding the Freeze, Fight, and Flight Responses in Schema Therapy

Schema Therapy, a comprehensive and integrative approach to treatment, focuses on identifying and altering deeply ingrained patterns, or schemas, that develop during childhood and are often carried into adulthood. These schemas can lead to maladaptive coping responses when triggered by stressors or perceived threats. Among these coping responses, the „freeze,“ „fight,“ and „flight“ mechanisms are pivotal in understanding how individuals react to emotional distress. This blog explores these responses and their relevance in Schema Therapy.

Freeze Response: Immobilization and Helplessness

The freeze response is akin to a state of paralysis where an individual feels stuck or unable to act. This coping mechanism often manifests in situations where the person feels overwhelmed, helpless, or unable to influence the outcome. In Schema Therapy, the freeze response is particularly significant in the context of schemas related to defectiveness, failure, or vulnerability to harm.

Characteristics of the Freeze Response:

  • Emotional Numbing: Individuals may feel emotionally detached, as if they are watching events happen from a distance.
  • Avoidance: There may be an avoidance of situations or discussions that could trigger distressing schemas.
  • Indecisiveness: Difficulty in making decisions or taking action, often due to a

Schema Therapy Approach: To address the freeze response, therapists work on helping clients identify the underlying schemas that trigger this reaction. Techniques such as imagery re-scripting, where clients re-imagine distressing scenarios with more empowering outcomes, and cognitive restructuring, which involves challenging and changing negative thought patterns, are commonly used. The goal is to help clients feel more in control and less overwhelmed by their schemas.


Fight Response: Aggression and Confrontation

The fight response involves confronting or attacking the perceived threat. In the context of Schema Therapy, this response is often seen in individuals with schemas related to mistrust/abuse, entitlement, or subjugation. The fight response can manifest as aggression, hostility, or a need to dominate and control situations.

Characteristics of the Fight Response:

  • Aggression: Verbal or physical aggression aimed at perceived threats or sources of distress.
  • Defensiveness: A tendency to react defensively to criticism or perceived slights.
  • Control: An urge to dominate or control others to protect oneself from vulnerability.

Schema Therapy Approach: Therapists help clients recognize how their fight response is linked to underlying schemas and explore healthier ways to assert themselves. This may involve techniques such as role-playing to practice assertive communication and boundary-setting, as well as mindfulness exercises to help clients manage anger and impulsive reactions. The aim is to transform aggressive responses into more constructive behaviors.


Flight Response: Escape and Avoidance

The flight response involves escaping or avoiding the perceived threat. This mechanism is commonly associated with schemas related to abandonment, social isolation, or emotional deprivation. Individuals employing this response often withdraw from situations or relationships that trigger their schemas.

Characteristics of the Flight Response:

  • Avoidance: Actively avoiding people, places, or situations that could trigger distress.
  • Withdrawal: Emotional or physical withdrawal from relationships or activities.
  • Distraction: Engaging in behaviors or activities to distract from distressing thoughts or feelings.

Schema Therapy Approach: To address the flight response, therapists encourage clients to face their fears and gradually expose themselves to triggering situations in a controlled and supportive manner. Techniques such as graded exposure, where clients slowly confront feared situations, and mindfulness practices to stay present and manage anxiety, are often used. The objective is to help clients build resilience and reduce avoidance behaviors.


Schema Therapy aims to help clients understand and modify their coping mechanisms by linking them to their core schemas. By identifying the root causes of the freeze, fight, and flight responses, clients can develop healthier and more adaptive ways of dealing with stress and emotional distress. This integrative approach not only addresses the immediate coping behaviors but also fosters long-term emotional growth and resilience.

Understanding the freeze, fight, and flight responses within the framework of Schema Therapy provides valuable insights into how individuals cope with deep-seated emotional issues. By addressing these responses through targeted therapeutic techniques, clients can break free from maladaptive patterns and build more fulfilling and balanced lives. Schema Therapy offers a powerful toolset for transforming these automatic reactions into opportunities for healing and growth.

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