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Looking after ourselves

Peer Support Worker

The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

Howdy folks! In lieu of this month's Topic Tuesday, we've decided to kick start an ongoing discussion space to explore the 'Four Fs' of trauma/stress responses - Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn. 


I'll run through some definitions, post some resources, and then invite folks to engage with their curiosity with some questions at the end.




Why do we need the stress response? 
The fight, flight, freeze, fawn response is crucial for survival. It enables us to respond to life threatening situations quickly. Without it, our ancestors would have struggled to survive, whether from animal predators or groups at war.


Nowadays, though, many of us live with far fewer life threatening situations than our ancestors. Still, the stress response keeps playing an important role in our survival.

For example, the stress response helps you react quickly to a speeding car coming your way, or to your child tripping and falling.


How does it work?
The fight, flight, or freeze response causes your body to produce a rush of hormones that prepare you to respond to the perceived threat. Here's what happens: 


  1. The amygdala picks up a cue from the environment that signals danger.
  2. It gathers the information and sends it to the sympathetic nervous system, which controls your body’s involuntary responses. In other words, you don’t have to think about it; the body just reacts.
  3. Your adrenal glands receive a signal to pump adrenaline, the fight-or-flight hormone, into your blood.
  4. Adrenaline releases blood sugar and fat from storage sites around your body into your blood, giving you a boost of energy.
  5. Adrenaline also increases your heart rate, pulse, and blood pressure. This blood reaches your vital organs, heart, and muscles. It prepares you in case you need to run, jump, or react in another way.
  6. Small airways in your lungs open wide, and you start to breathe more quickly.
  7. Your brain receives extra oxygen, making it more alert, and your senses become sharper.

Which stress response you experience will influence how you feel. In general, you may experience any of these during the stress response:

  • loss of voluntary bladder control
  • sweating, chills, or both
  • hot flashes
  • jumpiness and quick reflexes
  • muscle tension
  • faintness or lightheadedness
  • shock and difficulty moving
  • shortness of breath
  • increased strength, agility, or flexibility
  • racing heart
  • shakiness

After your initial reaction and once the threat has subsided, you may find that you either have no memory of what happened or a crystal clear recollection of the event.

It’s also common to feel less pain while your stress response is triggered. This is why people involved in car accidents usually don’t feel pain from their injuries until later on.


(Source/further reading here)



The Four F's Laid Out




Fight responses occur when you are presented with a stressor and your body believes that you have the power to fight it, releasing adrenalin and hormones preparing for this ‘battle’ (this may be physical or verbal). Signs of a fight response include:


Tight jaw
Grinding your teeth
Urge to punch something or someone
A feeling of intense anger
Need to stomp or kick
Crying in anger
A burning or knotted sensation in your stomach
Attacking the source of dange




The flight/ flee response fuels an urge or instinct to avoid or escape from the threat. Adrenaline floods the body to ensure sufficient stamina to allow escape. Signs of a flight response include:


Excessive exercising
Feeling fidgety, tense, or trapped
Constantly moving your legs, feet, and arms
Restless body
Feeling of numbness in your arms and legs
Dilated, darting eyes




The freeze response is effectively just that - freezing. In a freeze response, someone is usually on high alert but unable to move or take action.  Signs of the freeze response include:


Sense of dread
Pale skin
Feeling stiff, heavy, cold, and numb
Loud, pounding heart
Decreasing heart rate




The fawn response is when you may avoid conflict by appeasing to others, and people-please to make yourself more agreeable to the threat. Signs of a fawn response include:


Trying to be overly helpful
Primary concern with making someone else happy




Generally speaking, these responses occur in a cascade; i.e. if you cannot fight you will try to flee, if you cannot flee you may freeze, and if the threat persists, the fawn response might kick in to attempt to dissuade the source of the threat. 


The fawn response is primarily seen in people who grew up in abusive families or situations. It often covers up distress and damage you’re feeling inside due to trauma. Fawning is a common reaction to childhood abuse. The fawn response is your body’s emotional reaction that involves becoming highly agreeable to the person abusing you.


The fawn response can cause confusion and guilt if you have PTSD. Even if you’re being treated poorly, your instinct drives you to soothe your abuser instead of resorting to the flight or fight response. Signs of fawning behavior include:


Overdependence on the opinions of others
Little to no boundaries
Vulnerability to narcissists
Being easily controlled and manipulated
The fawn response is believed to occur in people who grew up with narcissistic parents. You may have been neglected or rejected constantly as a child. Being helpful and agreeable was the only means of survival.


(Source/further reading here)




The Window of Tolerance


You may or may not have come across this handy dandy diagram before:


Screenshot 2024-04-03 155513.png


When we experience adversity through trauma and unmet attachment needs this can drastically disrupt our nervous system. Our senses are heightened and our experiences and reactions are typically intensified and strategies are less readily accessible to us. Adverse experiences also shrink our window of tolerance meaning we have less capacity to ebb and flow and a greater tendency to become overwhelmed more quickly.


Humans don't particularly want to remain outside their window of tolerance, especially for lengthy periods of time. If there's been a lack of regulation in infancy and childhood, or following unresolved traumatic experiences that remain activated in the brain and body, people may not have the ability to self-regulate. Instead, folks often turn to external sources of regulation in order to bring themselves into an optimal/calm arousal level any way they can, without even knowing this is what they are trying to do. For example, someone with excessive fear may gravitate towards a depressant to calm their brain and nervous system, whereas someone feeling emotionally deadened may gravitate towards a stimulant to make them feel alive. 


(Source/further reading here). 




So lovely forums fam, let's discuss!!


1. How do these responses show up in your own life?

2. How do you tend to navigate them?

3. Is there one (or two) of the responses that shows up more than the others?

4. Are there parts of this theory you want to know more about?

5. Perhaps there's parts you disagree with?

6. And how do you work to stay within your 'Window of Tolerance'? 




Resources & Further Reading:


Jynx Reccomends ~

For me personally, this guide in particular was immensely helpful: The Beginners Guide to Polyvagal Theory. It really helped me understand our stress response and how we move through it, which in turn helped me to work through some of my internalised stigma about how reactive I have been to seemingly innoccuous situations in the past. It is written in very accessible language and paints a clear picture of the evolutionary functions of our emotions. Give it a go!


Re: The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

I have recently learnt a lot about this @Jynx.


I spend most of my time in fawn. But I do have a real problem with flight recently and my anger management issues shows me I also have the fight response. 

Im working on increasing my window of tolerance. Practicing self-care and self compassion. Learning how to take better control of your emotions around particular things also helps me. 

Re: The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

Incredible insights @Captain24 I'm so glad that you've had the opportunity to learn so much about yourself. 


Yes learning how to be responsive instead of reactive is a valuable skill for sure!

Re: The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

I tend mostly to Freeze and Flight

BUT if fleeing fails, then Fight kicks in. I'm not a small man, so unfortunately people get seriously injured that way

I hope that this works


Re: The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

I mainly Freeze. Anxiety kicks in, heart races, physically shake


when have had to relive traumatic event I Freeze, feel like have no control over things, can’t speak up for myself


hsve been known to go into Fight (not for long time though) Yell, scream when angry. Start to physically shake and involuntarily go into tears when calm down due to feeling safe

Re: The Four 'F' Trauma Responses

thanks Jynx

I find these responses all consuming and I wonder whether a form of self regulation would be the stimulus of a freeze or anxiety response? You mentioned that the body doesn't want to stay in that mode but what if the bodies response is to self perpetuate the anxiety as a stimulus to keep feeling, has this been documented?


I say this as I don't know how to self regulate. And I wonder if my body's way of self regulating, as I was emotionally deprived is to continue the anxiety, so that it isn't self regulating but maintaining a stimulus.


Also another question is that how does one learn to emotionally regulate? In the height of a response this seems counter intuitive. I don't know what that feels like so it's really hard to teach to my child and I worry that she may also take on my approach which is not helpful and I can see her getting in the same pickle I am in. I can see her fawning as I have become the one to emotionally neglect and I can't teach / show her another response... 


I'll take a look at the reading material, is it a learned experience only?

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