What Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Mean?

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It's natural to go into survival mode when confronted with traumatic events or unpleasant triggers. Each person may react differently to these circumstances, but the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are by far the most common. Discover more about these instinctive reactions to real and perceived threats.


What Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Mean?

"Fight," "flight," "freeze," and "fawn" are the most common trauma responses to high anxiety or stress incidents.

Others flee the scene, while others fight or become aggressive. On the same note, some people may feel trapped in their situation and attempt to flatter or please the aggressor in order to escape (freeze) (fawn). Each of these responses can be useful in certain situations, but they can also go haywire.

People suffering from anxiety disorders frequently experience heightened, misguided, and even debilitating versions of these acute stress responses. For example, someone suffering from complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) may use any of these techniques in response to nonthreatening scenarios if a related trigger reminds them of a traumatic event.


What Is the Fight Response?

A threatening situation may provide an opportunity for some people to confront their fears with rage and aggression. As your blood pressure and heart rate rise, you may become more argumentative, cruel, or even violent in order to defend yourself. This can be useful in a life-threatening situation. However, there are many other situations in which the fight response causes more harm than good for everyone involved.


What Is the Flight Response?

When you enter flight mode, you attempt to flee potentially dangerous situations as quickly as possible. This becomes problematic when your memories of past traumas begin to incorrectly color your current reality. For example, you may have experienced unhealthy conflict as a child, which caused you to withdraw and flee the situation. This same behavior may prevent you from navigating conflicts with loved ones in healthy, understanding ways as you get older.


What Is the Freeze Response?

While fight or flight responses are probably the most common, freezing up is also quite common. You may experience dissociation or detachment as a result of your inability to act in self-defense or flee the situation. Freezing can sometimes buy you enough time to fight or flee, but it can also put you in greater danger.


What Is the Fawn Response?

When confronted with threatening individuals, some people resort to people-pleasing. They might try to flatter or calm down the person who is threatening them, or they might try to lighten the mood with self-deprecating humor. People who grew up with narcissistic parents frequently rely on the fawn response because it helped them navigate their own difficult upbringings.


Why Do the Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Responses Happen?

When these stress responses work properly, they can help keep you alive, but they can also reduce your quality of life if they occur at the wrong time or to an excessive extent. These are just a few of the causes:

Biological processes: To keep you alive in dangerous situations, your brain and autonomic nervous system have evolved. When faced with a real or perceived threat, your amygdala sends a fear signal to your hypothalamus. When you go into defense mode, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol into your system, causing you to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn.

Preferred coping mechanisms: People can choose their own set of coping strategies. Genetic factors and conditioning may lay the groundwork for what causes you to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn, but you will also develop a subjective preference for what works for you over time. Self-evaluation will assist you in determining whether your responses to stressors benefit or harm you.

Preliminary conditioning: Past trauma influences current behavior. For example, if you were abused as a child, you'll still gravitate toward the stress response that helped you escape or alleviate that pain the most effectively. In adulthood, this can sometimes lead to the development of unhealthy or codependent relationships.


Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn Example

Assume you're in a crowded bar and an aggressive person approaches you. They clearly want to start a fight. If you immediately argue or engage, your fight response is activated. In contrast, if you rush for the exit, you are more likely to succumb to the flight impulse in dangerous situations. If you freeze during a conflict, you may feel unable to move or even respond to the aggressor. Fawning would be attempting to talk your way out of a bad situation.


How to Manage the Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn Responses

When it comes to your overall sense of well-being, the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses can be beneficial or detrimental. Keep the following tips in mind to help you manage them with wisdom and clarity:

Exercise mindfulness. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it is easy to let your emotions take over. Mindfulness allows you to take a breather and assess whether your responses are accurate or are causing you undue stress.

Recognize when they serve you. These survival instincts can either help or hinder you in meeting your own needs. Consider how these reactions affect you. Consider times when they have kicked in and whether they accurately reflected the situation's true threat level. This type of self-evaluation will assist you in determining when they are beneficial and when they are detrimental.

Speak with an expert. If you believe that any of these responses is wreaking havoc on your life, consider speaking with a licensed therapist or mental health professional. It's possible you have an anxiety disorder, in which case you're fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning far more often than you need to.

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