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Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Fear responses characterize the ways we perform under pressure. The three fear responses are fight, flight, or freeze.

A fight response refers to attacking the source of your fear. Fight responses can lead to action, arguments, and sometimes violence.

A flight response refers to disengaging from the source of fear. Flight responses can lead to unresolved conflict, isolation, and passive aggression.

A freeze response refers to inaction. It is a kind of shock wherein nothing is done to address the problem.

None of the fear responses are inherently bad. In fact, they can be useful and productive in the right context. Fear responses may empower you to be proactive or protect yourself from unnecessary hurt. However, sometimes we defer too readily to our fear response and it either stifles our growth or puts us in a worse situation.

The work of psychologists Renate Caine and Geoffrey Caine is closely tied to the concept of fear responses. In their book 12 Brain/Mind Learning Principles in Action they explain the concept of “downshifting.” It refers to the brain’s physiological response to a threat, and tries to explain why we struggle to perform in high stress scenarios. Downshifting, as a term, analogizes the brain with a car’s engine. (Think about a manual car that drives slower when downshifted into low gear.)

The Caines suggest that when we feel threatened our mind begins processing information with the autonomic parts of our brain, including the limbic system and reptilian complex. These parts of the brain are associated with survival, emotional experience, and reactionary behavior. Anatomically, they are located lower in the brain, thus a secondary meaning of downshifting.

When we downshift, we divest from our neo-cortex, the upper part of the brain that houses logic, reason, and higher cognition. Therefore, we not only make choices that run a higher risk of being irrational, we also diminish our ability to process, learn, and react at the top of our intelligence. We even diminish our ability to make and recall memories. However, if we eliminate or reframe our relationship to the threat, then we may improve our ability to listen, learn, and remember.

Something to consider: when we encounter someone else, who seems to be in a reactionary and downshifted state, we might feel that the best course of action is to rationally talk them through the situation. Unfortunately, that isn’t always effective. Usually, someone who has downshifted needs empathy, compassion, and support in order to calm down. After they are calm, a rational conversation can proceed.

Downshifting is not a perfect, nor a comprehensive metaphor because the brain is far more complex than a car engine. Unlike a car, all parts of the brain are always functioning, operating in parallel. However, at any given moment, a specific part of the brain might be using more energy and exerting more influence over our actions. So even if downshifting isn’t an exact science, it’s a powerful tool to help to navigate self-reflection and understanding.

Downshifting On Stage Many beginner improv scenes fail because both players feel threatened by the experience. They are acting in a downshifted state and are less able to listen, process, and adapt to changing circumstances.

Sometimes, when a scene is going poorly, I interrupt and ask, “what did your partner just say?” A confused, deer in the headlights look, and an embarrassed “I don’t know” is all I get in response. The fault is deeper than “they weren’t listening.” The improvisers weren’t in the right mindset. They were operating in a kind of improv survival mode.

Improvisers are constantly encountering fear responses and downshifts, both on the stage and through the social dynamic of being on a team. Successful improvisers are able to recognize these downshifts, employ mindfulness with cognitive reframing, conjuring empathy, compassion, and support, in order to effectively change their attitude and address the problem.

Exercise: Upshifting the Scene

In this exercise two players start a scene. One player will stay in character for the duration. The other player will drop their character to self-assess each time their partner speaks. To self assess they will either state:

1) “I am nervous because…” 2) “I am confident because…”

After the self-assessment, the player will continue the scene through their character dialogue.


Richard enters the scene and is washing dishes. Pamela sits at a table nearby watching.

Pamela: Did you notice that Stanley was at the party? Richard: (out of character) I am nervous because I don’t know who Stanley is, but I am going to assume I noticed Stanley so that I feel empowered as a co-creator in the scene. Richard: (in character) I noticed. I invited him. Pamela: You invited him? You know I hate Stanley. Richard: (out of character) I’m nervous because I still don’t know who Stanley is and why Pamela hates him. Richard: (in character) Why don’t you like him? Pamela: He’s my sister Vivian’s ex-husband! Richard: (out of character) I feel confident because now I understand that I invited my former brother-in-law to our party. That’s probably because I still like him, even after the divorce. Richard: (in character) I like Stanley. Pamela: Well, I don’t. Richard: (out character) I feel confident because I have a strong understanding of the situation and detect some underlying relationship issues between me and my partner. Richard: (in character) This doesn’t feel like it’s about Stanley. It feels like it’s about us.

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