What Does Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Mean?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 28, 2022
4 min read

Fight or flight is a well-known stress response that occurs when hormones are released in your body, prompting you to stay and fight or run and flee danger. If your body perceives itself to be in trouble, your system will work to keep you alive. 

Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are a broader collection of natural bodily reactions to stressful, frightening, or dangerous events. This sympathetic nervous system response dates back to our ancestors coming face-to-face with dangerous animals. 

Fight, flight or freeze are the three most basic stress responses. They reflect how your body will react to danger. Fawn is the fourth stress response that was identified later. 

The fight response is your body’s way of facing any perceived threat aggressively. Flight means your body urges you to run from danger. Freeze is your body’s inability to move or act against a threat. Fawn is your body’s stress response to try to please someone to avoid conflict. 

The goal of the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn response is to decrease, end, or evade danger and return to a calm, relaxed state

In fight or flight mode, your brain is preparing for a physical response.

Fight. When your body feels that it is in danger and believes you can overpower the threat, you’ll respond in fight mode. Your brain releases signals to your body, preparing it for the physical demands of fighting. 

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 danger

Flight. If your body believes you cannot overcome the danger but can avoid it by running away, you’ll respond in flight mode. A surge of hormones, like adrenaline, give your body the stamina to run from danger longer than you typically could. 

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

Freeze and fawn are also stress responses that don’t involve decisive actions. 

Freeze. This stress response causes you to feel stuck in place. This response happens when your body doesn’t think you can fight or flight. 

Signs of the freeze response include:

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

Fawn. This response is used after an unsuccessful fight, flight, or freeze attempt. The fawn response occurs primarily in people who grew up in abusive families or situations. 

Signs of a fawn response include: 

  • Over-agreement
  • Trying to be overly helpful
  • Primary concern with making someone else happy

The fawn response 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. 

The problem with the fawn response is that it can cause codependent adults and make you lose your sense of identity. 

Many different reactions are happening in your body during an acute stress response. Some of these reactions occur during any type of stress response, and some are specific to the type of response. The following can be parts of a stress response: 

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • Pale or flushed skin
  • Temporary loss of blunt pain response
  • Dilated pupils
  • Feeling of being on edge
  • Distorted memories of the event
  • Tenseness or trembling
  • Involuntary control of your bowels or bladder

Whether you’re in physical danger or psychological danger, your body will start triggering a stress response. This reaction starts in your amygdala, which is the section of your brain responsible for fear. 

The amygdala transmits signals to your hypothalamus, stimulating the autonomic nervous system. Then, your sympathetic system stimulates your adrenal glands to trigger adrenaline and noradrenaline hormones. 

Anxiety disorders can trigger your fight or flight response even during situations that don’t put you in danger. Unfortunately, there are detrimental effects of this chronic stress. The problem that triggers a stress response varies from person to person. However, some environmental or health conditions can be associated with the response. 

Stress management is an integral part of improving your overall health. Identifying your physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of stress can help you analyze and work to overcome them. This will help you determine if you’re truly facing a threat or if your nervous system is overreacting.

If stress impacts your quality of life, you can talk to your doctor. They may recommend therapy, medication, or other stress management techniques. Managing stress is a daily struggle that cannot be solved with a quick fix.

There are three techniques you can use to ground you to the present and help you overcome your stress response. 

Mental grounding techniques include: 

  • Focusing on your environment
  • Reciting songs, poetry, or affirmations
  • Playing the alphabet game
  • Reminding yourself you’re safe with safety statements
  • Doing mental calculations
  • Visualizing overcoming your fears

Physical grounding techniques include: 

  • Breathing and focusing on your speed and steadiness
  • Touching or holding onto an object tightly
  • Putting weight on your heels and physically connecting with the ground
  • Tensing your body and focusing on slowly releasing it from your forehead to your toes

Soothing grounding techniques include: 

  • Thinking about your happy place and relaxing there
  • Treating yourself to something comforting or joyful
  • Repeating coping statements
  • Speaking positive affirmations