Orange Zone: Panic and Freeze

This lesson introduces us to one more zone, the “orange zone”, which represents our panic and freeze response.

We'll talk about what this is, how it functions, and what it might look or feel like for you.  

What is the orange zone

If we quickly sum up our last two lessons, we can think of the yellow zone as the accelerator that tells us to act, and the red zone as the brake that tells us to shut down. 

The orange zone is what happens when both of these survival responses are turned on at the same time. Our nervous system gets stuck between the two zones — it’s like we have one foot on the accelerator, and one foot on the brake. This is our “freeze” response, where our body feels mobilised to act and yet at the same time we are unable to move. 

Why it does this

I like to use the example of a terrified rabbit, who is frozen in place the moment it sees a nearby predator. This is a really useful response that the nervous system came up with for when we need to stay motionless but still alert. It allows the rabbit to avoid attracting the attention of the predator, while still being ready to run or fight if it needs to. But as humans in the modern age, sometimes we can go into this response at times when it isn’t really necessary. 

Functional freeze

In its more mild form, this can look like what some people call “functional freeze”. Here we can have signs and symptoms from both the yellow zone and the red zone - we can feel a sense of stuckness and immobility, while at the same time we also feel a sense of anxiety and urgency to do more. This can keep us in an extended state of stress, where we want to act on our goals yet at the same time we procrastinate and feel unable to take a step forward. 

Panic attacks

In its more extreme form, a freeze response can look like panic. 

Panic attacks occur when the nervous system becomes triggered into an extreme danger response. A part of the brain known as the “amygdala”, which is in charge of activating our fight/flight response, goes into overdrive and our body becomes flooded with adrenaline, which can make our heart beat faster and our breathing become more shallow or hard to do. At the same time, our freeze response shuts down our ability to act, and so we can feel paralysed or helpless. 

This experience can feel really intense and overwhelming, and it often comes on really suddenly and seemingly “out of the blue”, even when there’s no apparent danger in sight.

Signs of a panic attack

Below is a list of signs and signals of what a panic attack can look like in the body and mind. Have a look at the list and notice which ones feel familiar in your life. You might find that only a few apply to you (or perhaps none at all if you haven't had a panic attack before). If reading this list becomes distressing at any point, feel free to skip it. 

What it might feel like in the body:

Extreme fear

Pounding heart

Difficulty breathing

Tightness in the chest

Senses can feel muffled

Nausea/vomiting

Uncontrollable crying

Feeling like you’re having a heart attack/stroke/ like you're dying

Losing your sense of time/feeling like this will never end

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Heart palpitations

Hyperventilating

Chest pain

Chills/hot flashes/sweating

Dry mouth

Trembling/shaking

Vision problems

Trouble speaking

Trouble hearing/sounds are muffled

Tingling/numbness in hands/arms/feet

Feeling like everything is a dream/isn’t real

Feeling detached from yourself

Fear of losing control/going crazy

A sense of impending doom

“Do I call for help?!” thoughts

They will pass

It's important to know that even though it might feel really scary, panic attacks are not life-threatening, and they will pass. It is just the adrenaline making these symptoms feel really intense, but once the body metabolises that adrenaline, which might take 5-10 minutes, your body will return to a more normal and manageable state. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that often what makes panic attacks worse is a fear of the body sensations that often go along with it, which can kind of add extra panic to the panic and make it last longer. This is so understandable considering how uncomfortable and intense they can be, especially if you don't know what's causing them.

Being aware of the signs and signals of the orange zone, and remembering that they are just physiological responses in the body that are not life-threatening and will pass, is extremely helpful when learning to cope with panic and freeze. 


And remember that as we go along in both the Learn course and the Cope course you will be equipped with more skills and understanding of how to be there for yourself when you need it, and how to find the support you need. 

Lesson Review

This lesson talked about what the orange zone is, why it occurs in the body, and what it might feel like for you.

For more information, strategies, and exercises that can help you cope if you find yourself having a panic attack, check out the orange zone section of the 'Cope' course. 

Pen