What Is The Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Response?

If a bear were heading your way, do you think you’d try to fight the bear, run away, or freeze in fear?

Your response may depend on what you experienced and learned growing up.

While we don’t typically run into bears in everyday life, we do encounter plenty of situations that we may perceive as threats.

Like an angry partner storming in the door after work. I could very well detect that as a threat and automatically go into a freeze or “shut down” response. (That’s my “go-to” response, because that’s what I learned growing up)

The 4 F’s: Why They Matter

I’ve been doing “inner healing work” for a long time.  But I never really took the time to learn about the “biology” part of healing.

The shadows lurking in the psyche?

Check.  Have been down that road.

shadow work journal - moving beyond codependency

The forgetting that I am a luminous, eternal spirit?

Check. I remind myself of that quite consistently.

Unresolved trauma/wounds/pain in my body?

Nah.

I spent most of my life trying NOT to feel what was going on in my body, because…

It didn’t feel good.

Of course, I’m talking about my emotions as sensations.

Uncomfortable, overwhelming sensations.

Let’s Not Bypass The Stored Trauma

To make a long story short, I did a lot of learning and some healing, for sure.

But I also “bypassed” healing pain/trauma that was stored at the “body” level.

I was “up in my head” almost all the time.

Yes, I did meditate at times. But not that consistently.

Yes, I was mindful once in a while.

But honestly, it was more hit or miss and I was STILL dealing with a lot of social anxiety.

And I mean a lot!

Now, back to learning about the fight, flight, freeze and fawn response. It’s so valuable as we navigate life in relationship to ourselves and others.

Lots Of Dysregulated Nervous Systems

About half of the population is walking around with a dysregulated nervous system characterized by insecurity that manifests higher amounts of anxiety.

Why?  Experts state it’s because as children they have experienced some sort of abuse, neglect, chronic stress, unsafe environment, and so on.

In other words, trauma.

Big T and little t traumas.

You see, the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses are better known as a trauma response. You may remember learning about this in biology. I remember, but I had no idea how it applied to my life back then.

You may be reading this and think, What’s the big deal? I got a few spankings as a child and I turned out fine.

Perhaps.

But there are many (and I mean many) people who experienced more than they could handle mentally and biologically as children/teens.

  • Getting screamed at consistently.
  • Being ignored.
  • Getting hit.
  • Experiencing a parent moving out.
  • Witnessing domestic abuse.
  • Being harassed, bullied, beaten up repeatedly by sibling, etc.
  • Being emotionally neglected.
  • Verbal abuse.
  • Experiencing traumatic event/sickness/surgery/etc.
  • Being afraid of caregiver
  • Chronic stress
  • So much more.

These things can certainly cause one to suffer from emotional, mental, physical, or social problems as adults.

And much of the pain or trauma they experienced has been accumulating in their unconscious psyche AND body because they are not aware of it and/or don’t know how to heal it.

Survival Responses Protect Us From Danger

The 4F’s are survival responses, there to protect us from danger and increase the chances of our survival.

We live in a world that doesn’t feel that secure, especially since the COVID pandemic.

And, we’re bound to encounter situations/people/places that our nervous system perceives as a threat to survival.

When we do, the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response gets triggered.

Your particular “go-to” response you’ll likely have picked up as a child.

  • The fight response means that you are ready to engage with that threat and fight for your survival, as in fighting an attacker who’s trying to get your purse.
  • The flight response means that you’re going to take off when you perceive a threat.
  • The freeze response means that you temporarily freeze, so that you can determine what your best course of action is. Maybe it’s fighting or maybe it’s fleeing, and there’s a possibility that you could play dead, which is known as immobilization. (Animals do this)
  • The fawn response is when you do anything you can to try to please that person that is coming across as a threat. You “people-please” to avoid the conflict.

Now, these types of responses are natural. They are part of our survival mechanisms as human beings.

That’s pretty awesome, I think.

After all, these mechanisms have helped keep humankind alive and well for eons.

But there are several things to note.

One, these responses can be triggered at just the THOUGHT of danger.

You think your partner is late because they are having an affair…

BAHHH BAMMM!

Your thoughts just triggered your “go-to” survival response.

You may fight, leave, shut-down emotionally, or go into people-please mode.

Two, you can get “stuck” in a response, which can diminish the quality of your life.

Using myself as an example, getting stuck in chronic survival mode in the “freeze”/”shutdown” response caused me to live much of my life feeling disconnected from myself, others, and I battled bouts of depression a lot of anxiety.

Because I learned as a child to “auto-regulate” my “dysregulated” nervous system by being alone, being alone as an adult (or in my own little mental world) was when I felt the most normal…

And safe.

Someone else might get stuck in chronic survival mode in the “fight” response, characterized by hypervigilance, always scanning for threats, and feeling unsafe when they are alone. They may gravitate toward people or work all the time, so they don’t have to face the terrifying feeling of being “alone”.

Being alone for them feels unsafe.

You see, getting stuck in a survival response causes the nervous system to continue to be dysregulated. It keeps you from being able to let go and fully relax.

To really feel a sense of deep peace.

It also keeps you from recognizing and dealing with all the accumulated past trauma or pain that needs tended to in order to live a peaceful and happier life.

What about you?

Do you think your “go-to” survival response is fight, flight, freeze, or fawn?

Or maybe you swing between them depending on the situation.

Of course, it’s not a problem if your survival response is used adequately to keep you safe.

When you see a snake, your survival response may get you running away, which may save your life.

Stress hormones are released to rev you up to “fight or flee”, but then once you get to safety, you calm down and integrate that burst of energy.

You are able to release that excess energy.

But if you’re already dealing with a dysregulated nervous system due to past trauma, it’s harder to calm down. It’s like your “baseline” is higher than those who didn’t experience trauma.

So, it’s like you never really fully calm down, and you can get so used to this state that it becomes your normal.

Except it’s not really normal, you know?

Is Your Nervous System Dysregulated?

One easy way to tell if you’re dealing with a dysregulated nervous system is seeing how you react when you’re triggered in an argument with a partner, friend, or family member.

  • Is there a huge blowup?
  • Do you lose your sh&t?
  • Does your brain get hijacked, losing your rational mind?
  • Does it take you a long time to recover?

When we are triggered, our nervous system perceives a “threat” and goes into action.

But the interesting part is that if we’ve not dealt with (healed) old trauma (from childhood or as adults), in the present moments, we FEEL an accumulation of past hurts.

That’s why we feel as strongly as we do during the argument or conflict.

That’s why we shut down, leave, yell, or feel like we just can’t take it.

The feelings inside are just “too much”.

And this is why I think it’s so important to learn what’s going on in our minds and bodies.

And do some digging into the past if we never have.

Not so we re-traumatize ourselves, but to work with painful memories/stored energy that may be causing present-day pain.

Does that make sense?

Doing the “inner healing work” is great, but if we’re not going at it in a holistic way (mind, body, and spirit), we could be missing out and staying stuck in some areas.

But It’s Hard To Feel The Intense Emotions!

For me, it was this “shut down”/”freeze” survival response that was keeping me from feeling and healing at the body level.

I was stuck with feeling anxiety because of a dysregulated nervous system and I had no idea how to “feel it” to heal it.

It felt too overwhelming, so I simply cut off from feeling at a deep level.

But boy, when I got revelation of what was really going on, for the first time in my life, I had hope that I could learn to live without anxiety and/or depression.

It’s a work in progress, but I’m doing the mind/body work and healing more and more.

A wonderful Somatic Experiencing therapist is helping!

I’ll be sharing much more on this topic, and include many of the anxiety-reduction techniques I’ve been using to “regulate” my nervous system.

You see, things like anxiety, PTSD, depression, trauma, relationship struggles, etc. can be treated in a variety of ways.

It’s not a “one size fits all” approach.

But for anyone who has experienced childhood trauma, neglect, chronic stress, or adult trauma, etc., I definitely think seeing a Somatic or body-based therapist is so helpful. They can help you heal at the mind and body levels, which can help you flourish in all areas of your life.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Responses

Keep in mind those that have not experienced trauma, chronic stress, etc. are more likely to not get stuck in these responses. They may not even come up in an argument or during times of stress. They tend to feel more secure and can handle situations without being “triggered” and acting from a space where accumulated wounds are stored.

 

Let’s turn it over to you.

Can you see how we, as humans, have developed this amazing survival system to give us a better shot at staying alive?

Can you understand how children use one of the four responses to contend with the stress of trauma that comes their way?

And how chronic stress and trauma can cause them to get stuck in coping with life using these responses even when threats aren’t really there? (At just the thought of threat?)

When you’re triggered, such as in an argument, does a survival response arise?

If so, which one?

For more information on Somatic Experiencing, see Peter Levine’s work here: Somatic Experiencing 

Dominica Applegate
Written by: Dominica Applegate

Dominica Applegate is an author, writer, and transpersonal spiritual teacher. Her teachings have helped millions of people experience emotional healing, relationship repair, and spiritual awakening. Earning her BA in Psychology and MA in Counseling, she worked 12 years in the mental health field before diving full-time into writing.

She runs Rediscovering Sacredness, an online portal that offers inspiration, essays, resources, and tools to help heal inner pain and experience more peace and joy.

Her books include:

Into The Wild Shadow Work Journal
Healing After a Breakup: A 50 Day Devotional & Guided Inner Work Journal
Goodbye Codependency: A 40-Day Devotional to Boost Self-Care
The Pain, It Shapes Her World {Poetry}