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  • Writer's pictureEmily Reynolds, MSOTR

Nervous System Stuck In Fight-Or-Flight

Do you feel your child's nervous system is stuck in fight-or-flight? You are not alone. Many parents seek answers and natural ways to help calm their child's nervous system

and function in everyday life situations.

stuck in fight-or-flight Moro reflex

The fight-or-flight response also known as a Moro reflex, is an instinctual survival mechanism that dictates two primary reactions: confrontation or escape. When confronted with a perceived threatening situation, the body has a physiological response. It goes like this: changes in heart rate, breathing, and stress hormone release, sharpening of the senses, and preparing the muscles for action. For some kids, you may see their pupils dilate or they may get a certain "look" on their face. I have even seen the hairs on the head stand on end when in this mode. In essence, it's a physiological and psychological reaction geared towards increasing the chances of survival.

But There Is No Threat To My Child's Survival, So Why?

You are correct. There is no "tiger" chasing your child, so why is their brain in "survival mode?" The key here is a "perceived" threat. The list is limitless as to what the perceived threat could be. This may be the sound of a loud toilet flush that sends your child into fight-or-flight. It may be the thought of talking in front of a group of people. It could be a new food that is presented and your child just "loses it." You may not understand the "why" of the threat but know that the reaction is real, and it is scary. Nobody likes to feel out of control.

Impact on Daily Functioning

The dysregulation of the nervous system stuck in fight or flight can have significant implications for an individual's physical and emotional well-being. Individuals may experience a range of symptoms that interfere with their daily functioning. These symptoms can include:

  • Hypervigilance

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Avoidance of triggering stimuli

These kids can present in many different ways because we are all unique and have different "triggers." These are some of the common ways I see this present itself in kids:

The Anxious, Fearful Kid, the Worrier

These kids are afraid to try new things. They worry about things before they happen. They like to know what to expect ahead of time. They may report some somatic complaints of aches and pains with no medical reason due to the constant worrying.

The Child Who Needs to be in Control of Everything

These kids come off as super bossy. It is their way or no way...but for good reason. When they are in control of the situation, they know what to expect. Their brain and body also feel in control. The fight-or-flight response is not triggered, and therefore they remain feeling "in control." If things don't go their way, watch out because the fight-or-flight has been triggered, and you can't "talk them through it." At this time, all reasoning and auditory processing has "gone out the window."

The Avoider

These kids are smart. They may not always be able to verbalize what triggers them, but they can be master manipulators in avoiding. Typically the home environment is their "safe place." Parents learn what does and doesn't trigger their kid so they tailor their environment to fit those needs. We often see the fight-or-flight response when the child is in a new circumstance or environment that can not be avoided.

The Kid with BIG Behaviors

hits and kicks stuck in fight-or-flight

These kids may have "explosive personalities". You may not understand what just triggered this behavior such as hitting, kicking, screaming, throwing, etc... It appears as if they are out of control and reacted for no reason. I assure you, there was a reason. It is easy to identify when these kids are in fight-or-flight...many times they can become combative and truly in "fight mode."

The Moro reflex, also known as the startle reflex, is a primitive reflex that is commonly observed in infants. The Moro reflex triggers a series of involuntary responses in the baby, including spreading out the arms and legs, arching the back, and crying. This reflex is believed to help the infant respond to potential threats and ensure their survival. It should be integrated at age 4 months. When it does not integrate, it causes the "fight-or-flight" response to be triggered often. The Moro reflex can be triggered by any sensory system ex: a loud noise, or sudden change in movement. It can also be triggered by a thought, memory, anticipation of what is to come, etc...

Managing the Moro Reflex

When the Moro reflex is triggered, and heart rate, breathing, and stress hormones are released, all executive functioning and conscious decision-making "goes out the window." You can not talk this person out of this response. Auditory processing is greatly decreased. The Moro reflex just has to "wear itself out." Later, when the child is calmed down and mentally removed from the situation, this is the time to talk about the choices that led to that moment.

Great news! There is a way to integrate the Moro reflex, and help your child reside in a state of calm versus constantly living in "fight-or-flight." Here are some ways to help manage the Moro reflex:

  1. Primitive Reflex Integration Therapy: This therapy aims to find areas in the nervous system that are immature. Target those areas, integrate primitive reflexes,  and improve the nervous system's ability to process information effectively.

  2. Stress Management Techniques: Practices such as deep breathing, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation before the fight-or-flight is triggered. This can help regulate the nervous system's response to stress.

  3. Environmental Modifications: Talk with the child about the schedule, or list of activities this creates a predictable environment. Always scaffold in the possibility that plans can change, and talk about ways to cope.

  4. Therapy: Working with a therapist in conjunction with reflex integration therapy can help individuals develop coping strategies and address underlying emotional concerns.

If you are looking for an alternative approach to helping calm your child's nervous system and get them out of the "fight-or-flight" mode, contact ReSprout Therapy! If you would like to read some success stories of kids who have been through ReSprout Therapy click here:

ReSprout improves nervous system stuck in fight-or-flight

Want To Know More? Check Out These Blogs!

Emily Reynolds helps kids get their nervous system out of fight-or-flight

About the Author:

Emily Reynolds, MSOTR is the founder of ReSprout Therapy. She is a pediatric Occupational Therapist who specializes in neurodevelopment and reflex integration.

Emily loves working with parents and kids to find the source of the problem and create lasting changes that impact daily lives and the long-term future of the child.


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