For this part of the series, we are going to look at the biological responses commonly known as fight/flight/freeze The brainstem is essentially in charge of our basic survival…and that includes our reactions to perceived threat. (and we’re going to add in one that is less commonly known called “fawn”).
In my previous post introducing the basic structures of the brain we discussed the oldest, deepest parts of our brain called the brainstem. You can go back and read here if you missed it. The brainstem is essentially in charge of our basic survival…and that includes our reactions to perceived threat.
Imagine with me, a human way way back in the hunter/gatherer times. Their livelihood was heavily dependent on being able to evaluate an environment and detect danger. So, over the millennia, our brains and bodies learned to scan the environment over and over to notice potential danger, and it did this by picking up on unique or unusual experiences taken in through our senses. For example, a sudden noise, an unusual smell, an animal figure standing out on the backdrop of trees and grass…all of this sensory information tells our brains to take another look, go on alert, or run for cover. It keeps us alive. And we do it without being conscious of it, it’s not a choice, but an automatic action in our brains and bodies.
But, times change. Imagine a typical day for you now. How often do you encounter an unusual smell, an unfamiliar person, or a new environment? Constantly right? If you leave your house, you encounter these things nearly constantly. So your body has had to learn to adjust, but we just don’t change on an evolutionary level that quickly, so your body is also exhausted. It’s scanning scanning scanning for threat all the time, and encountering lots of unknowns, not to mention if your child is upset, or your husband is acting off, or your mother is judgmental of your parenting style….now not only are you warding off the unknown threats, but also the relational threats coming from seemingly safe places. Can you see how this might make many people feel stressed, anxious, or overly tired?
So what does this look like in daily life, all of us humans walking around feeling slightly threatened? This is where fight/flight/freeze/fawn come in. These four Fs describe the kinds of reactions we have when we feel threatened. Sometimes you see full on fight, flight, freeze, fawn…but more commonly are lesser versions of these terms done in more socially acceptable ways. Let’s break it down:
Examples of behaviors influenced by the Fight impulse:
- General annoyance and agitation with loved ones and strangers alike
- Road rage
- Blaming, shaming, defensiveness
- Yelling, interrupting
- Anything involving physical discharge of energy (throwing things, hitting pillows, stomping, kicking, etc)
Examples of behaviors influence by the Flight impulse:
- Avoiding topics or people in general
- Leaving the room during an argument and not returning
- Bouncing from relationship to relationship
Examples of behaviors influenced by the Freeze impulse:
- Ignoring requests, responsibilities, people (procrastination)
- Extreme sleepiness during stressful times
- “Hiding out” either literally or figuratively
Examples of behaviors influenced by the Fawn response:
- People-pleasing (chronically caring for other’s needs before your own)
- Loose boundaries, difficulty saying no
- Chronic or extreme anxiety around upsetting someone else/being an inconvenience
We all do some of these sometimes.
And when life gets really hard, or you’ve experienced a trauma, sometimes we do these things chronically or in an extreme way. My hope is to both normalize that this happens to everyone, and also bring attention to when it is something that requires outside help. It is biologically normal for us to have these four Fs show up here and there. It is not normal for them to rule our lives and interfere in our relationships. Awareness is step one.
Keep your eyes peeled for my next post in which I discuss the ways we can positively impact our brains/bodies to keep the four Fs from taking over.