FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE, FAWN: EXAMINING THE 4 STRESS & TRAUMA RESPONSES
In the ancient past, it was useful for our ancestors to respond quickly to apex predators and escape with a fight-or-flight action. These evolutionary responses are still deeply embedded within our bodies. When there's a situation the body deems to be unsafe, the limbic system—the part of your brain responsible for memory, emotions, and survival—acts as a base of operations. It automatically jumps into action with largely instinctive protective measures to safeguard you.
Imagine the following scenario and try to think about your reactions to fear: You have just finished a long day at work and you are tired. You are late to get out of the office and it is well past dinnertime, so you are also hungry. You decide to take a short cut in order to get home more quickly. You therefore enter into a street where there is not much light. Usually you take the long way around the block, but today you make a different decision. You go into the dark street. Halfway through the street three mean looking guys steps out in front of you.
How do you react? Are you ready to fight? Do you want to run away? Do you freeze and do nothing? Do you feel fear? Do you get stressed or do you feel threatened? What if they just want to know what time it is? Is that likely? Do you think of where to position yourself so that not all three will be able to attack you at once if they decided to attack you? Do you think clearly in this situation? How many thoughts go through your head at this time?
Kung Fu expert and movie star Bruce Lee once said: “Experience is something you get after you need it”
Bruce Lee definitely has a point here. If it is the first time you fight for real in the dark street, you will not know how you will react. If you have trained this type of situations, you will know a lot more of how you react to the threat in front of you.
WHAT IS A TRAUMA RESPONSE?
A stress or trauma response is the reflexive use of coping mechanisms we use when feeling threatened. When we are exposed to danger, stress or potential trauma, it causes part of our brain, the amygdala, to go into hyperdrive. This causes us to act in ways that we don't understand and can leave us feeling like we no longer have control over ourselves; our bodies respond to perceived threats through a constellation of near-instantaneous, reflexive survival behaviours. The response is often based on what your brain thinks will help you survive the current situation.
The four responses most commonly recognised are fight, flight, freeze, fawn, sometimes called the 4 Fs of trauma.
THE FIGHT RESPONSE
The fight response can allow for assertion and solid boundaries. It's an active self-preservation function where you move reactively toward conflict with anger and aggression. It's a fear state where you confront the threat to stand up and assert yourself.
THE FLIGHT RESPONSE
When faced with a dangerous situation, the flight response corresponds with avoidant behaviour. It helps us be discerning in stressful situations and disengage to escape the threat and avoid conflict.
THE FREEZE RESPONSE
The freeze response can help you slow down and appraise the situation carefully to determine the next steps, however it can cause huge issues in self defence situations if it means you respond to threat with dissociation and immobilising behaviours. When this defence is enacted, it often results in literally "freezing"—feeling frozen and unable to move or finding yourself spacing out as if you're in a haze or detached from reality. You don't feel like you're really there, and you're mentally checked out as you leave out what's happening in your surroundings and what you're feeling in an attempt to find emotional safety.
In a freeze trauma response, parts of your sympathetic nervous system have reached a point of overwhelm causing a neurological shutdown. We liken this response to our animal friends who play dead in the presence of a predator. It's the equivalent of temporary paralysis and disconnecting with your body to prevent further stress.
THE FAWN RESPONSE
At its core, fawning is about people-pleasing and engaging in pacifying behaviours. It's characterised by prioritising other people or predators above all else, and by doing whatever that person wants to diffuse conflict. In an abduction situation, for example, this would mean you do everything the abductor asks you to do, including getting in the car to drive away with them. In a sexual assault situation, it might mean you lay down as instructed and "be quiet.”
The fawn response is people-pleasing to the degree of forgetting yourself entirely, including your own thoughts, emotions and body sensations.
CAN YOU HAVE MORE THAN ONE TRAUMA RESPONSE?
Trauma responses don't always neatly fit into a category, so you may not over-rely on the same defences whenever you encounter fear. It's more likely to primarily identify with one or two but still toggle between the 4 Fs depending on the situation-specific context that you are in. For people who suffered severe trauma, responses pair up creating hybrids like fight/fawn and flight/freeze.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you identify with one of the 4 F trauma responses, know you aren't alone. We will all respond with some variation of the above. But discovering and training your stress response is crucial; it prepares you to respond appropriately and effectively to threats and potentially dangerous situations.
But because the ancient brain learns through experience, doing a COBRA self defence course and experiencing yourself as powerful can be life changing! It’s all about taking that important first step to teach the ancient brain that it has multiple responses to emergency situations. To help your brain overcome the fear. To empower you to defend yourself!
Because you are absolutely worth it, and you always will be!