Four Fs of Stress and Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Explained

Four Fs of Stress and Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Explained


Have you ever found yourself reacting to stress in ways that seem out of your control? Those automatic responses can get you in trouble! They can mess with your relationships, work life, and personal well-being.

You are probably aware of the fight-or-flight emergency stress response concept but may not know that 2-only list of instinctual reactions has been expanded as more research into stress has been performed.

As the list has grown, the F alliteration has remained. The expanded list includes Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. (Some have added others like Faint or Flop, and Friend. I'll explain why I don't typically include these when talking about the stress response.)

I added freeze to my stress response explanations to clients many years ago, but I resisted the idea of growing the list beyond three until I investigated fawn recently for a writing project and got excited about how well it explained some of what I have witnessed in client stories.  

Recognizing the Four Fs stress response can empower you to better manage stress and make healthier choices in challenging situations.

By delving into each component of this primal response, you can gain valuable insights into your emotions and behaviors when faced with stressors. It can also help you understand how other people around you feel and act when they're triggered.

Let's explore the Fight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn stress response and its implications on your daily life.


What's in This Post

 Automatic Amygdala Responses to Stress and Trauma
 The Amygdala and Cerebrum Can Work Together
 Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine
 When Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Get Triggered?
 What is Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn?
 More Than Four Fs: Flop, Faint, and Friend
 What is the Fight Stress and Trauma Response?
 What Is the Flight Stress and Trauma Response?
 What is the Freeze Stress and Trauma Response?
 What is the Fawn Stress and Trauma Response?
 Managing Your Stress Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn
 More Resources for Managing Your Stress Response


Automatic Amygdala Responses to Stress and Trauma

amygdala versus cerebrum stress and trauma response inforgraphic


The amygdala is a small area of your brain that plays a crucial role in emotional processing, particularly in the formation and storage of emotional memories and the detection of threats. It perceives a threat and stimulates an automatic survival response based on animal instincts. 

That's great in true life and death emergencies where seconds count, but unfortunately, this 5-alarm-fire response happens far too often in non-emergencies where a more thoughtful reaction would serve you better. 

The cerebrum is a large part of the brain where you process information, consider options, and make plans. To give yourself a chance to do all that, you have to interrupt the automatic fight, flight, freeze, or fawn amygdala response. 


The Amygdala and Cerebrum Can Work Together

We can program our brain so that the amygdala and cerebrum work together for better outcomes. 

The amygdala's response can be modulated by the cerebrum’s higher-level thinking.

Feedback loops can be developed and reinforced through repeated use. Cerebral evaluations and problem-solving can influence emotional responses managed by the amygdala. 


Adrenaline, Cortisol, and Norepinephrine

Adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine are important hormones released by the body in response to danger.

Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, while adrenaline and norepinephrine are known as the fight-or-flight hormones.

These hormones prepare the body for action in a stressful situation, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness. They play a crucial role in the body's response to both physical and psychological stress, helping to ensure survival in life-threatening situations.

However, the quick responses they instigate can propel unhealthy behaviors when they are triggered by overreactions. 

In order to act rather than react to situations, we need to learn to quell overreactions and calm the stress hormone surge when overreactions occur.


What are Stress Hormones and What do They do Infographic


When Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Get Triggered?

Ideally, the personal emergency response system only gets triggered in genuine emergencies, but it can be triggered by anything that stimulates fear. 

What actually stimulates the emergency response in an individual depends on the person, their past experiences, reinforced methods of response, and current circumstances. 

 Any emotional pain or discomfort—disappointment, rejection, betrayal, guilt, etc.—can stimulate fear and the survival response.

If you are overreacting, disappointment that you didn’t get to watch your favorite TV show can turn into a life-or-death emergency equal to a mortal threat.

Note that panic, anxiety, nervousness, and worry are various levels of fear. They are often associated with a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response.

Also note that it doesn't take big trauma for the Four Fs to get triggered. It just takes a perceived threat. 


perceived threats trigger fight, flight, freeze, fawn


What is Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn?

When we are in survival mode, we can have quick, impulsive reactions.

  • If we choose fight, we can become aggressive.
  • If we choose flight, we can compulsively remove ourselves physically or mentally.
  • If we choose freeze, we can go deer in the headlights, not knowing what to say or do.
  • If we choose fawn, we can become submissive and overly accommodating to the perceived needs and desires of others.


fight, flight, freeze, fawn stress and trauma response infographic


There is a kernel of good in each of these four options. They are not entirely without merit in challenging non-emergency situations if they are conscious decisions delivered in a logical thoughtful way. Then, fight involves tackling the fear stimulus in a systematic way, flight is thoughtfully changing course, freeze could be pausing until you have more clarity, and fawn could be choosing to put someone else's wants and needs above your own after reflecting on the details of the situation and weighing their wants/needs and yours. 

These responses are problematic when they are hasty, reflexive, automatic, compulsive, impulsive reactions to non-emergencies. 


More Than Four Fs: Flop, Faint, and Friend

Other potential stress responses that get mentioned occasionally are flop, faint, and friend

"Flop" and "faint" both describe going physically limp. Certainly, it is a possible symptom of a panic attack, but I don't see it as a common response to stress. The four Fs discussed in this post happen much more frequently. 

"Friend" is mentioned in some trauma response lists, but I don't see it as an automatic action. It is defined as reaching out for support, forming alliances, engaging in nurturing behaviors. To me, those seem more like thought out coping strategies rather than automatic emergency reactions. 

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Flop, Friend is such a long phrase with so many ideas that I think it loses some of its value, so I'll stick with the four I commonly see with clients.


What is the Fight Stress and Trauma Response?


Daniel Goleman quote about the emotional brain and thinking brain


You probably have a pretty good idea of what it looks like when fight is the automatic response to a perceived threat. (Note that it is a perceived threat. The threat doesn't have to be real. It can be exaggerated or imagined.)

This response prepares the body to defend itself against danger by attacking the threat source. 

Physical and mental signs can include:

  • Adrenaline rush
  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Muscle tension
  • Clenched fists or jaw
  • Feeling of anger or irritation
  • Aggressive body language or behavior

Note that these signs and symptoms will not all appear in each case. 

Examples of "Fight" Stress or Trauma Reaction

When faced with stress or trauma, the fight response can emerge in various forms, ranging from protective to harmful, depending on the reaction and circumstances. 

Self-Defense: Physically or verbally defending yourself when attacked.

Defending Ideas: Aggressively defending your ideas or opinions in meetings or discussions.

Protecting Others: Intervening aggressively to protect someone else from harm or danger.

Being Argumentative: Raising your voice and becoming confrontational during a disagreement with a friend, partner, child, co-worker, or stranger. (Note that this is an automatic level response so the arguments you come up with to verbally fight back or attack aren't typically well thought out.) 

Pushing Back on Criticism: Responding defensively and angrily to constructive criticism or negative feedback.

Jealousy: Reacting with hostility or aggression when feeling jealous or threatened in a relationship.

Controlling Demanding Behavior: In an attempt to quiet a sense of feeling threatened, a person can become controlling and demanding. 

Aggression: Physically hitting or attacking a person or thing.


What Is the Flight Stress and Trauma Response?


running away from problems or fears quote


The flight response involves escaping or avoiding a perceived threat. This reaction prepares the body to run away from danger to ensure safety.

Physical and mental signs can include:

  • Increased heart rate and rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Urge to escape or leave the situation
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Feeling fidgety, tense, or trapped
  • Mentally checking out

Note that these signs and symptoms will not all appear in each case. 


Examples of "Flight" Stress or Trauma Reaction

When faced with stress or trauma, the flight response can show up in a variety of ways, ranging from protective to harmful, depending on the reaction and circumstances. 

Escaping Danger: Running away from a threatening situation or assailant.

Avoiding Conflict: Walking away from an argument or disagreement to avoid confrontation.

Ending Relationships: Breaking off relationships to escape emotional stress or discomfort.

Withdrawing: Physical, emotional, or mental withdrawal from stressful situations. 

Social Anxiety: Leaving social events early or avoiding them altogether due to anxiety.

Traumatic Memories: Avoiding places, people, or activities that trigger traumatic memories.

Avoiding Tasks: Procrastinating or avoiding difficult tasks and responsibilities at work.


What is the Freeze Stress and Trauma Response?


Understanding the freeze response can help us develop strategies to break free from paralyzing fear. quote


The freeze response is characterized by an inability to move or take action in the face of a threat. This deer in the headlights type reaction involves becoming immobile, dazed and confused.

Physical and mental signs can include:

  • Feeling stiff, stuck, or paralyzed
  • Numbness or inability to move
  • Increased or decreased heart rate
  • Shallow breathing
  • Feeling detached from the situation
  • Mental confusion and inability to focus or think clearly
  • Trouble speaking
  • Difficulty taking action

Note that these signs and symptoms will not all appear in each case. 

Examples of "Freeze" Stress or Trauma Reaction

When faced with stress or trauma, the freeze response can show up in different ways, ranging from protective to harmful, depending on the reaction and circumstances.

Encountering a Wild Animal: Coming face-to-face with a dangerous animal and being unable to move.

Conflict with a Loved One: Being unable to think clearly, respond, or defend oneself during a heated argument with a family member or partner.

Receiving Bad News: Hearing devastating news and being unable to react or process the information, remaining silent and still.

Experiencing a Flashback: Being triggered by a past traumatic event and feeling mentally frozen, unable to engage with the present moment.

Public Speaking Anxiety: Standing in front of an audience and being unable to start or continue speaking.

Social Gatherings: Feeling stuck and unable to move or interact with others in a crowded room, despite wanting to engage.

Pressure from Deadlines: Feeling overwhelmed by an impending deadline and being unable to start or continue working.

Test Anxiety: Knowing answers to questions but going blank during the test. 


What is the Fawn Stress and Trauma Response?

You may be the least familiar with the idea of fawning being a response to threats. 

The fawn response involves trying to appease or please the perceived threat to avoid conflict. This reaction is about seeking safety through submission or compliance.

Compulsive People Pleasing is an example of fawning. The compulsion is an automatic response to anxiety triggered by the perception that someone is unhappy with you, or would be disappointed, if you don't quickly appease, give in, comply, or do something to make them happy. 


what is people pleasing


Physical and mental signs can include:

  • Compulsive need to make others happy
  • Emotion suppression
  • Seeking external validation
  • Difficulty saying no
  • Inauthentic
  • Feeling anxious about others' approval
  • Conflict avoidance

Note that these signs and symptoms will not all appear in each case.


Examples of "Fawn" Stress or Trauma Reaction

The fawn response can manifest in different ways when triggered. It can range from being protective to harmful, depending on the reaction and situation.

Hostage Situations: Complying with demands to avoid harm in a dangerous situation.

De-Escalation: Using placating language and actions to de-escalate a potentially violent encounter.

People-Pleasing: Going out of their way to make others happy or meet their needs, even at the expense of their own well-being.

Poor Boundaries: Prioritize maintaining relationships and avoiding conflict over their own personal boundaries and needs.

Over-Apologizing: Apologizing excessively to placate others and avoid anger.

Excessive Helpfulness: Going out of your way to help others to gain their approval.

Avoiding Rejection: Being overly agreeable or compliant to avoid rejection or disapproval.

Seeking Approval: Constantly seeking validation and approval from others to feel safe and accepted.

Minimizing Needs: Putting others' needs above your own to avoid conflict or negative reactions.

Family Dynamics: Always agreeing with family members to maintain peace and avoid arguments.


Managing Your Stress Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

Understanding and managing the stress responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn is essential for personal wellbeing, happy relationships, and successful work life. Each response is a natural reaction to perceived threats, but when triggered too frequently or inappropriately, they can lead to unhelpful or destructive behaviors.


Tips for managing stress and trauma response infographic


Here are some general strategies to help manage these stress responses effectively.


1. First, awareness of the Four Fs is key.

Recognize the signs and symptoms of each stress response in yourself. Whether it's the anger and impulsivity of the fight response, the anxiety and avoidance of flight, the paralysis and numbness of freeze, or the excessive people-pleasing of fawn, being aware of your reaction pattern is the first step toward managing stress in a healthy way.


2. Identify Your Triggers.

Awareness of your triggers is also helpful. It can help you prepare for triggering events so you don't overreact and also help you make other mitigating plans. I have created a checklist to make it easy to identify your triggers. It's available in my Building Skills to Uplevel Life: Silver Lining Emotional Intelligence Workbook available on Amazon.


3. Use Quick Grounding Reset Techniques. 

When you feel overwhelmed, grounding exercises can help you quickly reset, stay present, and calm yourself down. They can provide a crucial pause for interrupting the automatic stress response and allow your rational brain time to consider options. Techniques such as deep breathing, focusing on physical sensations, or using mindfulness exercises can bring you back to the moment and reduce the intensity of the stress response. Check out this post for more resets that can be performed in 2 minutes or less: 5 Grounding Techniques for Anxiety and Emotional Distress


4. Practice Assertiveness. 

Assertiveness is the balanced area between the aggressiveness of fight, and passiveness of flight, freeze, and fawn. When you are assertive, you can express your honest thoughts and feelings while delivering them in a respectful way. 

My Building Skills to Uplevel Life: Silver Lining Emotional Intelligence Workbook includes many tips and worksheets for assertiveness training and anger management. 


5. Set Healthy Boundaries.

Setting healthy boundaries is essential, especially for those who tend to fawn. Learn to take your own needs into account and say no when appropriate. Start with small, manageable boundaries and gradually expand them. This helps in reducing feelings of overwhelm and maintaining your well-being.


6. Reduce Your Stress Load.

How reactionary we are can be influenced by our stress baseline. Stress-relieving activities may give you less of a hair trigger stress response. 

For example:

  • 20 minutes of moderate exercise can improve your mood for up to 12 hours. 
  • 20-30 minutes in nature reduces cortisol. 

For more ideas, check out this post: 15 Ways to Manage Stress and Reduce Anxiety.


7. Consider Professional Help.

Therapists can help you explore the underlying causes of your stress responses and develop effective coping strategies. Whether it's through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), the healing of old wounds, mindfulness-based stress reduction, or other therapeutic approaches, professional guidance can provide valuable insights and tools for managing stress. If you'd like to discuss working with me, complete the form on the contact page


More Resources for Managing Your Stress Response

I have created many books, workbooks, journals, worksheets, and other products to help you calm anxiety, overcome depression, build emotion skills, improve your relationships, and boost your wellbeing. 

For a full list of my books available on Amazon (with descriptions and links) click here.  

Here's more info on my latest workbook that has lots of tips and worksheets that can help you learn to deal better with emotions including anxiety and anger, and build skills like tact and assertiveness: 

Building Skills to Uplevel Life: Silver Lining Emotional Intelligence Workbook

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  • Ann Silvers
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