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

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated June 16, 2024by 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 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 responses. An updated version of this term includes a fourth “F” for the fawn response. Fear responses are natural and involve an automatic release of stress-related hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Recognizing when these responses are occurring in your body and knowing how to proceed may benefit your overall mental and physical health.

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 renamed the "fight-or-flight response." Physiologists and psychologists have continued to build on and refine Cannon's work since then. Over time, they recognized that many people have 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. Here’s a brief description of what each of these four responses can look like in action:

  • The fight response involves confronting the threat aggressively.

  • The flight response involves removing yourself from the situation through any means possible.

  • The freeze response may render you unable to move or act against the threat for some amount of time.

  • In the fawn response, you may find yourself complying with or trying to appease the threat to save yourself or reduce the severity of the potential harm.

When you feel threatened, your body will immediately respond to the situation. Regardless of which fear response occurs, your nervous system's underlying goal is to minimize or avoid the danger and return to a calm state. Understanding these mechanisms may help you develop coping strategies.

The fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses may also occur due to stress, anxiety disorders, or trauma. In such cases, the body's response to a perceived threat may not not align with the actual severity of the situation. For example, test-taking anxiety may trigger a heightened nervous system response. Although a written test is unlikely to cause immediate harm, an individual might still have the intense urge to avoid it or feel frozen when attempting to remember a piece of information for it. 

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

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 that you could face psychological or physical harm, and 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 as a result, and you’re likely to experience mental and physical changes like the following.

1. The physiological (bodily) stress response

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

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased blood pressure

  • Dilated pupils

  • Veins constricting to send more blood to the muscles

  • Muscle tension

  • Perspiration

  • Trembling

2. The psychological (mind) stress response

Along with certain physical changes, you may also experience psychological symptoms as part of the stress response. For example, acute stress in the form of nervousness might increase the intensity of an emotional response, such as profound anger or fear. In other 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 and a difficulty focusing on minor details 

  • Hyper-awareness of your surroundings or your body 

  • Feeling "frozen" or unable to move 

Why do some people fight while others flee?

Whether you experience fight, flight, freeze, or fawn may depend on your body's natural urges, how you react to conflict or stress, your past experiences, and the situation at hand. No one response is necessarily "better" than others, as all of them are natural reactions to distress and exist to defend you.

You may freeze if you feel overwhelmed by physical or emotional sensations. Or, 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.

The 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” instead by attempting to appease their abuser in an effort to shield themselves from further abuse. 

How to recognize stress responses

Getty/Vadym Pastukh


The fight response can 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. For example, your body may divert blood flow to your muscles in anticipation of an impending fight and you may feel blood rushing to your cheeks. 

Some signs that you might be in fight mode include:

  • Crying 

  • An urge to physically attack through punching, kicking, or other forms of aggression

  • A tight jaw or grinding teeth 

  • Glaring

  • Yelling

  • A feeling of intense anger

  • Upset stomach 

  • Rapid breathing and/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 can’t run away, you might fight to defend yourself until you have the opportunity to escape.


In some situations, your brain may decide that the best option is 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

  • Dilated eyes

  • Hypervigilance 

  • Fidgeting 

  • A tense jaw 

  • A feeling of being trapped 

  • Fear or anxiety 

  • A feeling of shock, surprise, or confusion 


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

  • A sense of being cold

  • Numbness in your body 

  • Feeling heavy or stiff 

  • A sense of fear, anxiety, or dread 

  • A pounding heart or a decreased heart rate 

  • Dissociation (feeling as though you are outside of your body) 


You may find yourself engaging in the fawn response when you've tried fight, flight, or freeze without success. Again, the fawn response is often a response to abuse or ongoing traumatic experiences, so it may also become a habit after a person has been exposed to such situations.

For example, if you had an abusive parent as a child, you might react to angry, abusive, or unkind people now with conformity and appeasement. You might be experiencing a fawn response if you find yourself attempting to appease others and avoid conflict at the expense of your own needs. 

What happens after the stress response has been engaged?

The fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is a built-in defense mechanism against any perceived threat. However, 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 the tasks of breathing, digesting food, 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. Sometimes referred to as "rest and digest," 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 as a result.

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 a mental health condition like PTSD may also experience a 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. 

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. A person may also 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 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 disappeared.

Incongruent responses 

At times, a person’s 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 state

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 go away, as can be the case with an abusive relationship. Studies suggest that a prolonged fear response can cause disease, a weakened immune system, chronic pain, and other health challenges. Such prolonged responses and symptoms are common in people with PTSD. 

Perceiving a threat where there is none

A person may also experience a fear response when no threat exists. This 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 default to one or two of the four fear responses, which may become patterns in their lives. If you’ve experienced trauma, you might have a more habitual response that may not be proportionate to a situation. Understanding which response is your default can help increase your self-awareness and empower you to take action to address mental health challenges if needed.

Common hybrid patterns for fear responses 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 PTSD as well. If you believe you may be experiencing PTSD, it’s recommended that you reach out for professional support. Help is available.

How to respond to your stress response

Chronic stress can cause an elevated heart rate, aching teeth, chronic pain, trouble making decisions, trouble sleeping, and other symptoms, and it can put you at increased risk of long-term health problems. You can manage your stress response and potentially reduce the clinical implications of prolonged stress by developing healthy coping strategies. 

Physical activity can be beneficial, as it helps the body release stress hormones and increases levels of neurotransmitters that induce calming effects. Engaging in relaxation techniques like mindfulness, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation could also help a person feel calmer after experiencing a spike in stress.

Seeking support for stress and trauma

Because the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is automatic and often overwhelming, it can be difficult to react to it in a rational way. Talking to a professional about it could be beneficial. A licensed therapist may help you process past traumas or long-term stress and their impacts. They may also teach you research-based techniques for calming yourself after you encounter a real or perceived threat, whether you tend to respond with one or all of the fight-flight-freeze-fawn options. If you’re living with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or another stress-related condition, they can also help you address these.

If past trauma or a heightened nervous system make it difficult for you to commute or spend time in new environments, you might prefer to seek therapy from home. With online therapy, you can attend sessions from anywhere with an internet connection and choose between phone, video, or in-app messaging as ways to connect with a licensed therapist. Studies suggest that online therapy can be similarly effective to in-person treatment for addressing the symptoms of many mental health conditions and emotional challenges.


Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are four potential, automatic responses to real or perceived threats. The one you may engage in can be influenced by past experiences. A chronically engaged stress response can result in health problems over the longer term, which is one reason why addressing symptoms of PTSD and related conditions can be important for health.

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