What Are The Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Responses?
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.
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.
- The fight response involves confront the threat aggressively.
- The flight response involves removing yourself from the dangerous situation through any means possible.
- The freeze response may render you unable to move or act against the threat.
- 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?
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
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:
- An urge to physically attack through punching, kicking, or other methods
- A tight jaw or grinding teeth
- 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.
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
- 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 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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What is fight, flight, freeze, or fawn in psychology?
In psychology, "fight, flight, freeze, or fawn" refers to the natural reaction to threatening circumstances stemming from our survival instinct as humans. These responses are part of our body's automatic built-in system to protect us from danger. They are governed by specific brain parts that release hormones and trigger other physiological reactions.
- Fight: This response involves confronting and fighting off the threat. It's a defensive reaction to perceived danger. Signs of a fight response might include grinding teeth, urge to move, clenched fists, or shouting.
- Flight: The flight response is to run away from the perceived danger. It involves avoiding and escaping from the threatening situation. Signs of a flight response might include sweating, trembling, racing heart, or feeling fearful and anxious.
- Freeze: This response involves remaining still and immobile in the face of danger. It's a way of hiding from the threat and hoping it will pass by unnoticed. Signs of a freeze response might include feeling numb, loud ringing in the ears, or feeling paralyzed with fear.
- Fawn: The fawn response seeks safety and protection from the perceived danger by pleasing or appeasing it. It involves trying to pacify or submit to the threat to avoid harm. Signs of a fawn response might include agreeing with someone even if you don't mean it, apologetic language, or going along with something you don't want to do.
The parts of the brain responsible for these reactions are primarily the amygdala, which processes emotional responses, and the hypothalamus, which activates the sympathetic nervous system. The amygdala signals to the hypothalamus when a threat is detected, triggering a cascade of physiological reactions. These reactions prepare the body to respond to the threat, including increased heart rate and blood circulation, heightened senses, a rush of adrenaline, and other changes to support a quick and powerful reaction. Blood vessels and skeletal muscles are also affected to increase oxygen and energy supply. At the same time, the digestive system is slowed down since it's not necessary during a fight or flight response.
Understanding fight or flight mode is crucial in clinical psychology as it relates to how individuals react to stress, trauma, and dangerous events. It provides insight into various behaviors and can be particularly relevant in therapeutic settings, especially when managing anxiety, PTSD, and other stress-related disorders.
What is a fawn response?
A fawn response is a coping mechanism where an individual tries to appease or please a threatening entity to avoid conflict. While it may seem like a natural response, it can be harmful in certain situations. This reaction is especially common in people who have experienced trauma or abuse, as they may feel powerless and use fawning as a survival strategy.
In contrast to fight or flight, the fawn response involves different physiological reactions, such as diminished heart rate and blood pressure. The individual may also display other behaviors like excessive apologizing, people-pleasing, and avoiding confrontation.
While some individuals may approach a perceived threat aggressively, others may attempt to appease the threat to avoid harm. This behavior can often lead to a continued cycle of abuse, as the fawning individual may feel trapped and unable to stand up for themselves.
What is the fawn response to fear?
Intense fear can trigger a fawn response in some individuals, especially those who have experienced trauma or abuse. When faced with a perceived threat, some people may experience psychological danger and feel powerless to fight or flee. As a result, their natural response may be to fawn to avoid further harm.
This reaction can also stem from societal expectations or past experiences where the individual was rewarded for being submissive or "people-pleasing." In such cases, the fawn response becomes an automatic survival strategy when faced with fear.
What is the fawn response to trauma freeze?
A fawn response to a trauma freeze refers to an individual's tendency to appease or please a threat in order to avoid further harm, even when they are unable to escape physically. This reaction can occur during traumatic events where the individual feels overwhelmed and unable to fight or flee. In such situations, the person may resort to fawning as a means of self-preservation and survival.
Trauma freeze is a common response to extreme danger or stress, and the fawn response can be a way for individuals to cope with this intense frozen state. While it may provide temporary relief, it can also lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame.
What are the 4 responses to fear?
The four main responses to fear are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These responses are part of our body's natural survival mechanism and can occur when we perceive a threat or physical danger. Each response involves different physiological reactions and behaviors, but they all aim to keep us safe in threatening situations.
What is a fawn in psychology?
In psychology, a fawn refers to an individual's response to perceived danger or threat by trying to appease or please the source of danger in order to avoid harm. This response is often seen as a survival mechanism, but it can also be harmful in certain situations and can stem from past experiences or societal expectations.
Understanding the fawn response is important in clinical psychology as it can provide insight into various behaviors, especially in individuals who have experienced trauma or abuse. The fawn response can also be helpful in therapeutic settings when managing anxiety, PTSD, and other stress-related disorders.
Is the fawn response manipulative?
The fawn response is not inherently manipulative. Instead, it is a psychological and physiological reaction that some individuals exhibit in threatening situations, particularly when they feel incapable of managing stress or danger through other responses (fight, flight, freeze).
The fawn response involves attempting to appease or please the threat in order to avoid conflict or harm. This behavior can be seen in individuals who have learned, often from past experiences, that this strategy is the most effective way to protect themselves in a dangerous or stressful situation. It is a survival mechanism, much like the other responses, and is rooted in the instinct to protect oneself from harm.
People exhibiting a fawn response might engage in behaviors such as people-pleasing, excessive apologizing, or trying to anticipate and meet the needs of others, especially those they perceive as threatening. While these actions might appear manipulative, they are typically driven by fear and a deep-seated need for safety rather than a desire to control or deceive others.
It's important to recognize that the fawn response, like other stress, is an automatic, unconscious reaction that an individual has little control over in the moment. Understanding this response in the context of stress and trauma can be crucial for effective psychological support and treatment, especially in helping individuals develop healthier coping mechanisms and stress management strategies.
What causes a fawn response?
The fawn response is triggered as a survival mechanism in situations where an individual perceives a threat or danger and believes that fighting, fleeing, or freezing are not viable options. This response is often rooted in the person's past experiences, particularly in their early developmental years.
Factors that contribute to the activation of a fawn response may include:
- Early childhood experiences: Individuals who grew up in environments where they felt unsafe or where there was a lack of consistent care and protection may develop a fawn response. This response is particularly common in those who experienced childhood abuse or neglect. They might have learned that appeasing a caregiver or authority figure was the most effective way to avoid harm or receive care.
- Trauma and abuse: People who have experienced trauma, especially relational or interpersonal trauma, might resort to a fawn response. If they found that resisting or escaping the traumatic situation was not possible or only led to more harm, they may have learned to survive by trying to placate the abuser.
- Low self-esteem and fear of conflict: Those with low self-esteem or a strong fear of conflict and rejection may also exhibit a fawn response. They might feel that they do not have the right to assert themselves or that any form of confrontation would lead to abandonment or harm.
- Coping strategy for stress and anxiety: The fawn response can be a learned coping mechanism for managing high levels of stress and anxiety, particularly in situations where the person feels powerless or overwhelmed.
Understanding the causes of a fawn response is important for appropriate therapeutic intervention. Addressing deep-seated fears, trauma, and patterns of coping can help individuals develop healthier ways to handle stress and danger. With proper support and understanding, individuals can learn to manage their fawn response and find more effective ways of keeping themselves safe in threatening situations.
What is the fawn response in polyvagal theory?
The fawn response, while not originally a part of polyvagal theory, can be integrated into its framework to provide a deeper understanding of how the body responds to perceived threats.
Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, explains the role of the vagus nerve in emotional regulation, social connection, and fear responses. This theory suggests that the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary bodily functions, has three primary states: the ventral vagal state (safe and social), the sympathetic state (fight or flight), and the dorsal vagal state (freeze or collapse).
In the context of polyvagal theory, the fawn response can be seen as a survival strategy akin to the social engagement system (ventral vagal state). When an individual perceives a threat and deems that neither fighting nor fleeing is possible and freezing or collapse (dorsal vagal state) is not the most adaptive response, they may resort to fawning. This response involves using social engagement strategies, such as pleasing, appeasing, or placating a perceived threat, to mitigate harm and maintain safety.
Essentially, the fawn response is a way of mobilizing the social engagement system to protect oneself in threatening situations. It's a strategy of managing danger through connection and appeasement rather than through confrontation or avoidance. This response, while potentially adaptive in certain situations, can become maladaptive if overused or relied upon in contexts where other, more assertive responses would be healthier or more effective.
Understanding the fawn response through the lens of polyvagal theory helps in recognizing the complex ways in which our autonomic nervous system tries to ensure our safety and survival, especially in situations of trauma or chronic stress.
Is fawn fight or flight?
Fawn is neither fight nor flight but rather a distinct stress response that falls under the umbrella of "freeze." While fight and flight involve more active responses to perceived danger, the fawn response is characterized by an attempt to appease or placate a threat. However, like other freeze responses, it also involves shutting down one's emotions and suppressing assertive behaviors in order to survive.
Individuals who have experienced the fawn response may struggle with feeling powerless or passive in threatening situations, as they are unable to engage in their fight or flight responses. This can lead to feelings of shame and self-blame, perpetuating a cycle of negative self-perception and difficulty asserting onesel
Recognizing that the fawn response is distinct from fight or flight can help individuals understand and make sense of their unique reactions to danger. With the support and guidance of a therapist or other mental health professional, they can learn more adaptive ways to cope with stress and threats in their lives.
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