Understanding and controlling Flight-fight-freeze-or-fawn

How you react when you’re frightened? Can you recognise a stress or trauma response? Do you know how to relax when your brain goes into survival mode?

When someone perceives a threat – real or imagined – their body responds with a stress response and they will fight, flee, freeze, or fawn. These reactions are tools that are deeply embedded in the human mind, so it’s impossible to never experience these reactions.

When they’re in response to the type a threat that requires potentially life-saving action, they can be incredibly useful and even necessary. But the fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn responses are much less suitable for the largely intangible threats of modern society.

When your brain goes into survival mode and you react with flight-fight-freeze-or-fawn but there isn’t a threat to face or escape, you can unintentionally act in ways that have unpleasant consequences and harm your mental and physical health.

This is why it’s important to understand what a survival reaction is, recognise when you’re acting from a place of survival, and practicing how to calm yourself down.

Understanding and controlling Flight-fight-freeze-or-fawn - A stress response is your body’s call to action to save your life.
A stress response is your body’s call to action to save your life

What is fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn?

How do you react when you suddenly feel threatened? Do you lash out? Are you more likely to try to get away or stop moving? Do you sometimes try to find a way you can please someone who is upset with you?

When you’re in danger, your brain will automatically react with one of the four stress responses: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. A stress response is your body’s reaction to something in your environment – real or perceived – that is frightening.

Fear is learned over time by associating environments or situations with negative experiences. Your brain thinking the situation feels life-threatening and initiates the fight-flight-freeze reaction to save your life.

These responses aim to:

  1. Win a fight against a perceived threat or intimidate it into backing off – Fight
  2. Escape a threat – Flight
  3. Not moving or acting against a threat in the hope it will lose interest – Freeze
  4. Pleasing a threat to avoid conflict – Fawn

The fawn response differs from fight, flight or freeze because fawn is only affective when being threatened by another person. You can’t please a lion into not eating you and compliments won’t stop a landslide from crushing you. This response is often misunderstood since desperately trying to please someone threatening can seem illogical, unless it’s thought of as a survival tactic.

Stress responses begin in your amygdala, the section of the brain that regulates fear. It sends signals to the hypothalamus, which then stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is made of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system causes freezing. Your reaction is determined by which system is dominant during your response.

When your ANS is stimulated, your body very quickly releases adrenaline and the stress hormone cortisol. This sudden release of hormones can cause:

  • A faster heart rate to deliver oxygen to your major muscles to get them ready for action. When someone freezes, their heart rate can increase or decrease.
  • Breathing becomes faster to increase oxygen levels in the blood stream. Freezing can cause you to hold your breath.
  • Your pupils dilate, which lets in more light to improve your vision. Peripheral vision also increases to make you more aware of your surroundings.
  • Hearing becomes sharper.
  • Pain perception is temporarily reduced.
  • Digestion stops while growth, reproduction, the immune system, and all other non-essential functions are suppressed.
  • You can become hot and sweaty or feel cold. Some people look pale and get goosebumps.
  • Your body prepares for injury by thickening the blood to make clotting easier.

Your response is determined by what should give you the best chance of survival, so it depends on your capabilities and the type of threat you’re facing. Some people shift between fight or flight and freezing. Most people’s bodies will return to normal within 20 to 30 minutes after the threat has passed.

The purpose of these reactions is to regain a sense of safety. For most people, safety is control over their situation.

But stress responses are meant to be temporary. If you’re in survival mode when there isn’t a threat present, you can harm your physical and mental health.

Consequences of stress reactions

Unfortunately, the stress response doesn’t only get triggered when your life is in danger. The brain didn’t develop the ability to distinguish between real threats to your life and perceived danger, so you can easily go into survival mode when there isn’t a clear threat to be beaten or escaped from.

Threats to your social status can trigger a stress response due to the evolutionary need to belong. Humans evolved at a time when living in groups was essential to survival, so being excluded was often a death sentence. Therefore, challenges to your social status can feel like a threat to your life and prompt you to react with fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn.

These reactions to social threats can be relatively obvious, like getting aggressive after someone teased you, walking away from a fight with your partner, or not responding when being harshly criticised by your boss. But they can be subtle and seemingly unrelated to survival as well.

The following behaviours can be caused by a stress response:

Fight

  • Speaking louder than necessary and being overly-expressive
  • Having powerful emotional responses – not just anger
  • Difficulty compromising (a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality)
  • Spreading rumours or sharing malicious social media posts
  • Giving the silent treatment

Flight

  • Excessive movement and/or exercise
  • Constantly being distracted or keeping busy
  • Never being alone with your thoughts 
  • Needing to have background noise (such as TV or music)
  • Being a perfectionist to avoid criticism
  • Ending relationships if there’s any question they might not work out

Freeze

  • Excessive sleeping
  • Spending a lot of time fantasising
  • Being alone
  • Mentally checking out when upset or facing conflict
  • Hiding your emotions

Fawn

  • Putting other people’s needs ahead of your own
  • Ignoring your needs
  • Neglecting and/or underdeveloping your self-identity
  • Being agreeable
  • Needing to be helpful or useful all the time
  • Heaping on praise to avoid criticism
  • Being kind to people who mistreat you 
  • Not voicing your opinions (even when asked your preference)
  • Having weak boundaries
  • People pleasing
  • Co-dependency

These aren’t always stress responses; some people have more assertive personalities, easily lose themselves in fantasy or daydreams, dislike boredom, or enjoy pleasing others. But if the way you act is aimed at protecting you from danger, even if you don’t realise that’s your motivation, then you’re not choosing behaviour you enjoy – your body is going into survival mode.

Chronically feeling stressed, anxious, or worried can send your brain into survival mode and keep it there, even if what’s bothering you isn’t life-threatening. If stressors are always present and you never feel completely secure, then the fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn reaction can stay active, disrupting many of the body’s processes. This increases the risk of certain health problems, including:

  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • Memory and concentration impairment
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain

In addition to harming your health, these responses are also damaging because they don’t address the cause of the problem. Fighting a mugger or running away from a poisonous snake can end the danger, but these techniques aren’t well suited for most modern sources of concern. Aggression can make many problems worse, while running or hiding from stressors can cause even more stress because you’re not dealing with them.

People can also go into survival mode when it isn’t necessary because of trauma. After surviving or witnessing a traumatic event, your mind can stay in survival mode and react with fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn even though there aren’t threats present.

Traumatic experiences can cause exaggerated responses when a person is reminded of the event that caused the trauma. It’s most common in people who survived accidents or natural disasters, were the victim of a violent crime, experienced childhood abuse, survived war (as a soldier or as a civilian), or had stressful life events. For example, someone who was in a car accident can have a stress response if they hear a car horn honking.

During the first four weeks after the event, this is known as Acute stress disorder (ASD). If ASD lasts longer than four weeks, it can become Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). ASD is often characterised by anxiety, fear, helplessness, flashbacks, nightmares, numbness, difficultly being happy, and a strong urge to avoid any reminders of the traumatic event. When they feel any sense of danger, they can react with fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn.  

Untreated ASD can lead to PTSD, substance use disorder, clinical anxiety, depression, and panic disorder.

As well as trauma, ongoing abuse, especially in childhood, can cause people to live in a state of survival mode, even when their abuser is no longer in their life or doesn’t have control over them. Many people who exhibit the fawn response were mistreated as children and adopted their fawning behaviour in an attempt to please their abusive parents and get better treatment.

Unnecessary stress reactions can also cause problems because of the types of decisions you’re more likely to make while in survival mode. If you look at a situation and think that your only options for how to react are flighting, running, doing nothing, or being agreeable, you’re unlikely to choose a suitable response. Being in survival mode shuts down the logical part of your brain and you stop thinking long-term, as your brain considers this unhelpful while trying to stay alive. So thinking clearly and making good decisions becomes nearly impossible.

Occasional survival-based reactions in non-threatening situations – like jumping and spilling a drink at a party when someone shrieks with laughter or taking a swing at a colleague who surprises you by darting around the corner – can be embarrassing or awkward, but they’re unlikely to significantly impact your quality of life. However, frequently having stress responses can lead to a number of consequences; it can impact your relationships, your job, your ability to do certain activities, and lower your overall quality of life.

Stress responses are useful when there is a temporary danger present as they can save your life. But they become harmful when there isn’t danger to face or escape from and they don’t turn off.

How do you stop instinctual reactions?

Changing how you instinctually react to situations is challenging since so much of what you think and how you respond happens without your conscious awareness. You can be driven by beliefs and assumptions you don’t even realise exist, especially if you have a long history of reacting with fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn. You can even think that these feelings and responses are a part of your personality.

Therefore, a good place to begin changing your reactions to perceived threats is to recognise when you’re acting on instinctual impulses to save your life. Since many of these reactions are subtle and automatic, this can be difficult. So build the habit of paying attention to your thoughts – especially when you’re stressed, worried, or upset – to have a better chance of catching your underlaying beliefs and motivations in these types of situations.

Your thoughts aren’t the only clue that you could be having a stress reaction; there are also physical warning signs. These can include:

  • Your muscles are clenched or you’re trembling
  • A knot in your stomach
  • Heavy breathing
  • Tightness in your chest and/or difficulty breathing
  • Sweaty palms
  • A pulse in your head or throbbing sensation
  • Your face becomes hot and flushed, or you get pale and covered in goosebumps

Noticing these physical changes can be easier than recognising subtle thoughts, so knowing your physical symptoms of a stress response can help you realise when you’re going into survival mode.

Also pay attention to when these thoughts and feelings tend to happen. Knowing the types of situations that cause a survival reaction can be very useful because if you anticipate fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn, you’re less likely to respond automatically.

When you realise that you’re feeling threatened and acting on instinct rather than logic, take a stilling breath and listen to your thoughts. Don’t try to stop what you’re thinking and feeling or try to change your mood, as this is difficult and can make you feel more tense. Let your thoughts form into sentences, instead of existing as vague and undefined emotions.

Once you discover what you’re thinking about a situation, such as – “I can’t handle this pressure”, “Everyone is laughing at me”, or “I’m going to kill him!” – ask yourself how accurate these beliefs are:

  • Are you under so much pressure that you can’t possibly cope? Is there no way to get more time or help with your responsibilities?
  • Is what you did really as embarrassing as you think it was? Has no one else ever made the same silly mistake?
  • Did the person you’re upset with mean to hurt your feelings? Would the reaction you’re imagining improve your situation?

This exercise is called reality-checking and it’s very useful for challenging an over-exaggerated perception of a situation.

In addition to reality-checking, you can also ask yourself if your thoughts are helpful. Feeling stressed about a deadline could motivate you work harder. But if worrying about the consequences is distracting you and making it hard to focus, then they aren’t helpful. You don’t have to stop yourself from having these thoughts since trying and failing to suppress them could make you feel even more stressed. But the act of identifying your thoughts, gauging how true they are, and determining if they’re useful or not can help keep you from being strongly affected by them.

Once you realise you’re going into survival mode, do what you can to calm yourself down. You could already think you’re calm, especially if you don’t react with fight. But the changes in your body that are triggered by the perception of a threat could still be taking place and making it challenging (if not impossible) to take a rational and long-term view of your situation.

Deep breathing exercises are a simple and effective way to calm down. Taking slow, mindful breaths keeps you from breathing quickly and shallowly, while also sending your brain the signal that you’re not in danger. Although there are many different types of breathing exercises, you can begin by simply taking a long slow inhale, keeping in inside for a few moments, then completely emptying your lungs before repeating the process. Take as much time as you need to relax, and consider leaving to do something calming if necessary.

Talking to someone you trust about how you’re attempting to improve your responses to stressful situations can be very beneficial. Describing your beliefs and explaining your reactions can help you better understand them and compel you to dig deeper into where your triggers come from and how they affect you.

If you’ve experienced past trauma or abuse, you may need to work with a mental health professional to have the best chance of learning how to manage your reactions. Trauma and abuse can affect people in ways they aren’t aware of, especially if they’ve been affected for a long time and they think their unhealthy coping mechanisms are unchangeable parts of who they are, or they don’t realise how they’re being negatively affected.

Changing instinctual reactions can be difficult, but there are many benefits from reducing how often you go into survival mode.

Understanding and controlling Flight-fight-freeze-or-fawn - You can’t keep yourself from having stress responses, but you can learn to control how you react
You can’t keep yourself from having stress responses, but you can learn to control how you react

The fight-flight-freeze-or-fawn reactions exist to save your life, and in some situations they will. However, there are many situations where you can feel threatened, but acting from a place of survival isn’t helpful and can even be harmful to your quality of life.

This is why it’s very valuable to understand survival responses, identify which you tend to do and when, and choose reactions you can be proud of (or at least not regret) in the future.

You can’t turn off your instincts but you can reduce how severely and how often they affect you.

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