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Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn: Understanding these Responses

Updated: Jan 17

Whether you find yourself lost in an unknown area with a sense of unease, unexpectedly confronted by an aggressive dog barking at you, or caught off guard by a sudden train cancellation while commuting, these diverse situations can trigger the fight or flight response, commonly known as the acute stress response. Understanding that the four stress-trauma responses can manifest in both beneficial and harmful ways is vital. By gaining insight into your reactions during stressful or traumatic moments, you can actively reshape behavioural patterns and make informed choices in a wide range of circumstances.



What Constitutes the Fight or Flight Response?


The fight or flight response is the body's innate physiological reaction to situations perceived as stressful, frightening, or dangerous. The response is triggered by the recognition of a threat, rapidly activating the sympathetic nervous system and releasing hormones that prepare the body to confront the danger or make a swift escape.


The term "fight-or-flight" encapsulates our inherent survival instinct, reflecting the choices available to our ancestors when confronted with hazardous environments. In ancient times, facing a hungry predatory animal left only the options of fighting or running. While the challenges in today's world are often more psychological, such as a job interview, the high-arousal situations still prompt this primal response.


The term "fight or flight" (or the acute stress response) was coined after observations of the unconscious and automatic reactions that occur within the body to mobilise the resources needed to cope with threatening circumstances, such as the release of hormones like adrenaline in response to a predator threatening an animal. This hormonal release, triggering the fight or flight response, occurs automatically, serving the purpose of preparing the animal to defend itself in life-threatening situations by either fighting or fleeing.


Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn


Physiologists and psychologists have expanded the original fight and flight terms, gaining a more comprehensive understanding of human responses to threats.


These responses are now categorised as follows:


  • Fight: Confronting any perceived threat with aggression.

  • Flight: Swiftly escaping from the source of danger.

  • Freeze: Becoming immobilised, unable to move or act in response to a threat.

  • Fawn: Immediately seeking to please others to avoid conflict.

When faced with a perceived threat, the body swiftly reacts to the imminent danger. The fundamental objective of engaging in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses is to mitigate, eliminate, or evade the danger, ultimately going back to feeling calm and in control.


How Does It Work?


Think about a time when you felt the fight or flight, freeze, or fawn response – maybe when you saw a scary looking dog during a walk or had to do a work presentation in front of a large group. Your breathing got faster, your heart raced, and your body tensed up, ready to act.


Now, let's understand the science behind it. It all starts in the amygdala, the part of your brain that deals with fear. The amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the autonomic nervous system (ANS).


The ANS has two parts – the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The fight or flight response is part of the sympathetic system. When it kicks in, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline.


Here's how it works in simple terms: When you sense a stressor, like seeing a scary dog, the hypothalamus tells the sympathetic system to release adrenaline. This makes your heart and breathing go faster, sends more blood to your muscles, and stops digestion – getting your body ready for "fight or flight."


Once the stressor is gone, the parasympathetic system takes over. It slows down your heart and breathing, restarts digestion, and brings everything back to normal.


Signs of Stress in the Body


When your body senses a threat and activates the fight or flight, freeze, or fawn response, it exhibits specific signs. Let's go through them:


  • Eyes: Pupils dilate, improving vision in low light. You may feel like you have tunnel vision or enhanced sharpness.

  • Ears: Ears become more alert, and hearing sharpens.

  • Heart: Heart rate increases, and blood vessels widen, sending more blood, oxygen, and energy to muscles, preparing for action.

  • Lungs: Breathing accelerates, taking in more oxygen for muscles.

  • Skin: Skin may become pale, and the face flushes. Blood redirects from the skin's surface to essential areas like muscles and the brain, causing hands and feet to feel cold.

  • Muscles: All muscles tense up, readying for action, potentially leading to shaking or trembling, especially if there's no movement.

  • Stomach: Nausea or "butterflies" may occur as blood shifts away from the digestive system.

  • Mind: Thoughts race, aiding in quick assessment and decision-making. Focusing on anything other than perceived danger becomes challenging, and dizziness or lightheadedness may occur if there's no actual running or fighting.

  • Pain: Sensitivity to pain temporarily decreases during the fight or flight, freeze, or fawn response.


Since everyone's response to stress is unique, these reactions can differ. After the threat subsides, it takes approximately 20 to 60 minutes for each person's body to return to its usual state.


The Mental Stress Reaction


In addition to the physical response, it's quite likely that psychological effects may arise. Nervousness is a common psychological manifestation, and acute stress can amplify feelings of anger or hasten movements when avoiding danger.


On the other hand, it might lead to a mental blankness, making it nearly impossible to think clearly and decide the next course of action. Various psychological responses may emerge, including anxiety, shifts in focus, and sporadic attention.


Both the physiological and psychological stress responses propel the whole person into survival mode.


Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn


The stress response happens when what's happening around us feels too much for us to handle.


How stressed we feel depends on how we see an event and if we think we can handle it. For example, a person who is good at playing a particular sport, like football. They might not feel stressed before a game because they are confident in their abilities (they feel they can handle it). On the other hand, someone who struggles with the same sport and often misses shots might feel extremely stressed before a game (they feel they can't handle it, leading to a stress response).


Fight: When you sense danger and think you can beat it, you're in fight mode. Your brain tells your body to get ready for a physical fight. Signs you're in fight mode include:


  • Intense anger or thoughts of causing harm, even to yourself

  • Feeling the urge to punch or kick someone or something

  • Clenching your jaw or grinding your teeth

  • Glaring angrily at people

  • Crying

  • Experiencing an upset stomach, characterised by knots or a burning sensation


Flight: This is thinking you can escape danger by running away. Sometimes, running away is the smartest thing to do. For example, if a fight breaks out where somewhere you're at, it's best to get out quickly. Signs you're in flight mode include:


  • Continuously moving legs, feet, and arms

  • Engaging in lots of physical activity

  • Experiencing restlessness, tension, or a sense of being trapped

  • Sensation of numbness in the arms and legs

  • Eyes wide or darting around


Freeze: When you don't feel like fighting or running away, freezing is an option. Signs you're in freeze mode include:


  • Becoming pale

  • Experiencing fear

  • Feeling rigid, heavy, cold, or numb

  • Loud and rapid heartbeat

  • Gradual decrease in heart rate

  • Enduring stress without a noticeable reaction


Fawn: People might use the fawn response when they've tried to fight, run away, or freeze but it didn't work. This reaction is common in those who grew up in families where there was abuse.


If you were a child facing mistreatment or had parents who were self-centred, survival might mean always agreeing and being helpful. Over time, you might notice this in yourself by realising that even if someone treats you badly, your main concern is making them happy rather than looking out for yourself.


Importance of the Response


The fight-or-flight response is a natural reaction that your body has when it feels threatened. It's like an alarm system that prepares you to deal with danger. This response can make your heart beat faster, make you breathe more quickly, and make you more alert. It's a way for your body to get ready to either face the danger or run away from it. This can be really helpful in dangerous situations, but sometimes your body can react this way even when there's no real danger around. This response is important for keeping us safe, but it can also cause problems when it's not needed.


Phobias are a good example of how our body's alarm system can be set off when there's no real danger. For example, a person who fears heights might experience significant stress when faced with a situation like climbing a tall ladder or going to the top floor of a skyscraper. Even though many people enjoy these activities, the person with the phobia may feel their body going into high alert, with their heart beating fast and breathing speeding up. In serious cases, this can lead to a very scary panic attack. In today's world, this kind of response isn't as helpful as it once was. In fact, constantly facing psychological threats that we can't fight or run away from can have bad effects on our health.


Dealing with the Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Responses


Understanding how your body reacts with fight, flight, freeze, or fawn is key to dealing with tough situations. When you feel tense, there are ways to make your body calm and relaxed.

Even though fight or flight is useful in some situations, everyday situations can cause stress without any real danger. Managing stress is crucial for your overall health.


Understanding these reactions helps us find new ways to deal with our stress. When facing these reactions, it's important to look at the bigger picture and learn to slow down, pay attention to yourself and what's going on, and understand the situation to regain control.


Seeking Help


If the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response happens too much, gets very strong, and comes up at the wrong times, it might mean you would be best to seek help as it could indicate an anxiety disorder.


Although the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response has a clear purpose, it shouldn't happen unless you really need to defend your life. If you think this describes you, a crucial part of treating this anxiety is understanding better how the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response works. Learning more about the responses can help you feel safer by developing relaxation and grounding techniques.


Look out for these signs; seek help if you have any of the following frequently:


  • Always feeling "on edge."

  • Unable to relax.

  • Always scared, nervous, or worried.

  • Stress gets in the way of daily things.

  • You feel scared of things that aren't really threats.


Getting help is important. If you're worried about your mental or physical health, make yourself a priority. A mental health professional can help find why you're feeling overwhelmed.


Conclusion


The fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response happens when your mind or body senses a threat.

It's a natural defence system from evolution that makes your body react, like increasing your heart rate and making your senses sharper, so you can quickly protect yourself from what you think is dangerous.


If you notice you're having the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response too much, especially when it's not a life-threatening situation, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you figure out why it's happening and find ways to deal with it.



 


Sally Edwards

Fully qualified counsellor, psychotherapist and trauma therapist based in Orpington, Kent

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

My specialism is on the impacts of trauma, from events such as childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and emotional abuse, accidents, violence, serious illness, and financial trauma (redundancy and bankruptcy). But I work with clients with many other life challenges and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, OCD behaviours, PTSD, self-harm, and eating issues and body image issues.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, Biggin Hill, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley







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