What Are The Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Responses?

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban
Updated November 30, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When individuals feel scared or stressed or perceive danger, the body's sympathetic nervous system may react in a few different ways, which are often referred to as the fight, flight, or freeze response. An updated version of this response includes a fourth “F,” the fawn response.

Fear responses can be natural and are caused by a release of stress-related hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Determining when these responses are occurring in your body and how to proceed can benefit your overall mental and physical health.

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Do You Know How Your Body Responds to Fear?

What Is Fight, Flight, or Freeze?

In the 1920s, a physiologist named Walter Cannon described what he called the acute stress response, later named the "fight or flight response." In recent years, physiologists and psychologists have continued to build on and refine Cannon's work. They recognized that many people had additional stress responses beyond fight or flight, including, freeze and fawn.

The fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses are physiological changes that can happen in the body when a person is faced with a perceived threat. These automatic behaviors are a part of the defense cascade, which is the body's way of safeguarding itself.

  1. The fight response involves confront the threat aggressively.
  2. The flight response involves removing yourself from the dangerous situation through any means possible.
  3. The freeze response may render you unable to move or act against the threat.
  4. In the fawn response, you may find yourself complying with the attacker to save yourself or reduce the severity of the threat.

When you feel threatened, your body may immediately respond to the situation, Regardless of which fear response occurs, your nervous system's underlying goal is likely to minimize or avoid the danger and return to a calm state. These neurobiological mechanisms may be adaptive in life situations, and understanding them may help you develop coping strategies.

The fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses may occur due to stress, anxiety, or trauma. In some cases, the body's response to a perceived threat does not align with the severity of the situation. For example, test-related anxiety may trigger a heightened nervous system response. Although a test may not cause long-term harm, an individual might feel an urge to avoid it or feel frozen when attempting to remember a piece of information. 

An overactive nervous system can be detrimental to your mental health. You may be able to help calm your nervous system through lifestyle changes, coping mechanisms, and treatment options.

How Does The Fight-Flight-Freeze Fawn Response Work? 

A fear response can occur as a reaction to a perceived or real threat. In these situations, you may believe you will face psychological or physical harm. Your nervous system may shift into an acute stress response as soon as you recognize a threat. Specific physiological reactions can take over your body, and you may experience mental and physical health changes.

1. The Physiological (Bodily) Stress Response

Physically, during the fight flight, freeze, or fawn response, your body and nervous system may start working to shield you. The hypothalamus, a structure within your brain, sets in motion a series of rapid changes in the nervous and endocrine systems that propel you to act. You might experience the following physical symptoms:

  • Hormones such as adrenaline are released into your body from your endocrine system
  • Your heart rate speeds up
  • Your blood pressure increases
  • Your pupils dilate
  • Your veins constrict to send more blood to your muscles
  • You begin to perspire
  • Your major muscles tense
  • Your smooth muscles relax, allowing your lungs to take in more oxygen
  • Digestion and immune systems shut down so energy can be used for dealing with the crisis
  • You begin to tremble
  • Your blood sugar may spike as your liver breaks down glycogen

2. The Psychological (Mind) Stress Response 

Along with any physical responses, you may experience psychological symptoms. Acute stress in the form of nervousness might increase the intensity of an emotional response. You may experience profound anger or fear. In some cases, individuals report their mind "going blank" and being unsure how to act, which can be part of the freeze response. You may also experience the following: 

  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • A focus on broader concerns, combined with a difficulty focusing on minor tasks 
  • Hyperawareness of your surroundings or your body 
  • Feeling "frozen" or unable to move 

Both physiological and psychological stress may shift your body and mind into survival mode.  Humans are not the only animals that experience this response. Other animals may also react to danger in this way. 

The fight-or-flight response often safeguards us and keeps us alive. However, these responses can also be activated when they do not fit the situation or may stay "turned on" for longer than needed. When this disproportionate reaction happens, it could have mental and physical health consequences.

Why Do Some People Fight And Others Flee? 

Whether you experience fight, flight, freeze, or fawn may depend on your body's natural urges and how you react to conflict or stress. No one response may be "better" than others, as all the responses are reactions to distress and exist to shield you. You may still experience profound stress or anxiety whatever your default response may be.

You may freeze if you feel overwhelmed by your physical or emotional sensations. Some individuals might freeze in a traumatic situation if they believe or know they are unable to escape or fight back. This response may be due to previous attempts to fight or run in similar situations that were unsuccessful.

A fawn response is often associated with abusive relationships and traumatic interpersonal experiences. For example, someone who has unsuccessfully attempted to flee or fight abusive situations in the past may subconsciously or consciously fawn by attempting to appease their abuser in an effort to shield themselves from further abuse. 

How To Recognize Stress Responses 

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Fight 

The fight response may happen when you believe you may be able to rescue yourself from a threat using physical strength. Your brain may send messages to your body to prepare you for the physical demands of fighting or defense. Your body may divert blood flow to your muscles in anticipation of an impending fight. You may feel blood rushing to your cheeks. 

Some signs you're in fight mode include:

  • Crying 
  • An urge to physically attack through punching, kicking, or other methods
  • A tight jaw or grinding teeth 
  • Glaring
  • Yelling
  • A feeling of intense anger
  • Upset stomach 
  • Rapid breathing or heart rate
  • Tense muscles 

In certain circumstances, fighting may be a beneficial response. For example, if you are in a life-threatening situation where you cannot run away, you might fight to shield yourself until you have the opportunity to escape.

Flight

In some situations your brain may encourage you to run away and you may physically feel your body shift into flight mode.An example of a flight response is fleeing a burning building instead of attempting to put out the fire. During a flight response, you might experience the following:  

  • Restless legs 
  • Numb limbs or body 
  • Dilated eyes and hypervigilance 
  • Fidgeting 
  • Tense jaw 
  • A feeling of being trapped 
  • Fear or anxiety 
  • A feeling of shock, surprise, or confusion 

Freeze

In some cases, individuals may freeze when a fight or flight response is not possible or has not worked in the past. The freeze response may also occur subconsciously. Animal and human freezing behaviors may be a way to ensure immediate safety while assessing a situation. The freeze response can also be referred to as attentive immobility, reactive immobility, and hyperactive immobility. You might experience the following during a freeze response: 

  • Feeling cold 
  • Numbness in your body 
  • Pale skin 
  • Feeling heavy or stiff 
  • A sense of fear, anxiety, or dread 
  • A pounding heart 
  • Decreased heart rate 
  • Dissociation (feeling as though you are outside of your body) 

Fawn

You may find yourself using the fawn response when you've tried fight, flight, or freeze without success. A fawn response may be a response to abuse or ongoing traumatic experiences

For example, if you had an abusive parent as a child, you might react to angry, abusive, or unkind people with conformity, fear, or complacency. You might be experiencing a fawn response if you find yourself attempting to appease others at the expense of yourself. You might also use this response subconsciously to prevent yourself from further harm.

What Happens After A Stress Response?

The fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is a built-in defense mechanism against any perceived threat. Stress affects people differently; as a result, they may react differently, even after the threat is gone.

The autonomic nervous system controls stress and operates all your vital systems, including breathing, eating, and circulating blood. Your body runs on autopilot most of the time and controls these systems without your conscious awareness. However, after a fear response has been activated, you may notice that your body tries to "catch up" with itself. 

While the sympathetic nervous system causes fear response, the parasympathetic nervous system works to manage your bodily functions once the danger has passed. Called the "rest and digest" period, this response can allow your body to recompose itself before carrying on with daily tasks. Some people may feel hunger or thirst or the desire to rest after experiencing an actual or perceived danger.

When a fear response continues after a threat has passed, it may be considered chronic stress or a symptom of an underlying condition, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Post traumatic stress disorder can cause a person to relive negative experiences, such as a car accident, through flashbacks. A person with PTSD may also experience a natural state of emotional distress throughout their day-to-day life even when there is no immediate danger. leading them to potentially feel constantly on edge. This hypervigilance can lead to physical and mental exhaustion. To help manage these symptoms, a person may seek therapy to learn coping strategies and grounding techniques to help manage their fear response. 

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Do You Know How Your Body Responds to Fear?

Inappropriate Fight, Flight, Freeze, Or Fawn Responses

Each type of fear response can be beneficial in certain dangerous situations. Many people may experience more than one response in specific scenarios. For example, someone may fight off an attacker and then run away. If they are unable to do either, they might freeze or fawn in an to attempt to stop the attacker.

However, some individuals might respond a certain way when it would be best to respond in another way. Or, someone might experience a fear response after a threat has wholly disappeared.

Incongruent Responses 

At times, a body may respond inappropriately or incongruently to a threat. For example, if someone freezes during a fire when a window is open and available as an exit, they may be risking their safety. Although this response may not be an active choice, there are ways to learn to ground yourself to make a more appropriate decision in stressful circumstances.

Remaining In A Fight Flight, Freeze, Or Fawn 

In some cases, individuals may stay in a fight or flight state after a threat has passed or if a long-term, repeated threat does not disappear, as can be the case with an abusive relationship. Studies show that a prolonged fear response can cause disease, a weakened immune system, and chronic pain. Such prolonged responses and symptoms can be common in people diagnosed with PTSD. 

Perceiving Threat Where There Is None 

You may experience a fear response when no threat exists. Your response may be caused by an anxiety disorder, daily stress, or panic attacks. For example, you may become overwhelmed and have the urge to run away when experiencing anxiety about a social situation.

Understanding Your Main Response Type

Many people might default to one or two of the four fear responses. These responses may become patterns in your life. If you have experienced trauma, you might experience a more habitual response that may not be proportionate to a situation. Understanding which response is your default can help you decide how to shield yourself in the future. 

Common hybrid patterns for fear responses can include:

  • Fawn-fight: Attempting to control a threat through psychological actions, anger, or aggression  
  • Fawn-flight: Avoiding a threat through techniques like the "gray rock" method
  • Fawn-freeze: Surrendering to a threat and attempting to pacify it 

Fear Responses And PTSD 

An ongoing fear response could be a sign of PTSD. 

A person diagnosed with PTSD might not remember the specifics of a trigger, but they may experience reactive behaviors such as nervousness, hypervigilance, or outbursts of angry behavior. Anxiety disorders may accompany symptoms of PTSD. If you believe you may be experiencing PTSD, reach out for support. You are not alone. 

How To Respond To The Stress Response 

Stress may happen automatically when you feel threatened. If you're experiencing chronic stress, you may have difficulty making healthy decisions. Chronic stress can cause an elevated heart rate, aching teeth, and chronic pain. You can manage your stress response and reduce the clinical implications of prolonged stress by developing coping strategies.

A licensed therapist might also help you recognize when your brain engages in flight-fright-freeze-fawn responses. If you have experienced trauma or long-term stress, your therapist might also help you discuss the details of these events and find ways to move forward and feel safe.  

You could discover that what you perceive as a threat now is a vague reminder of an earlier threat. 

Calming Practices

To help a stress response pass, or to take care of yourself after experiencing a frightening situation, you can breathe deeply, practice mindfulness, meditate, sing, write, or exercise. Physical activity can be beneficial, as it helps the body release stress hormones and increases neurotransmitters that induce calming effects. Research has found these coping mechanisms to be beneficial for reducing stress and calming the nervous system.

Seek Help

Because the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is physiological, it can be difficult to react to it in a rational way. In these cases, talking to a professional could be beneficial. A therapist may help you process past traumas or long-term stress and their impacts. They might teach you techniques for calming yourself when you encounter a real or perceived threat. 

For those who feel nervous about attending therapy or aren't sure if it is safe, finding a therapist who allows you to attend counseling from a comfortable location can be beneficial. Online therapy might allow for this flexibility.  With online therapy you can attend therapy from anywhere with an internet connection and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions with your licensed therapist. Additionally, studies show that online therapy can be as effective as in-person counseling in treating long-term stress and trauma exposure. If you're interested in trying this modern treatment, option consider reaching out to a therapist through a platform like BetterHelp

Takeaway

Understanding the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses can be the first step in knowing how to react to them. Whether a threat is real or perceived, stress can negatively impact your body. If you are experiencing a fear response after a threat has passed, you may benefit from therapy. Consider reaching out to a counselor for further guidance and empathetic support.

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