Fight / Flight / Freeze / Fawn

Wide-eyed woman looking surprised

Most people have heard the phrase “fight or flight,” and probably an increasing number of people are hearing about the other stress responses of freeze and fawn. Regardless of how much you know about these 4F strategies, you’ve likely heard them come up in a context of triggers, bad habits, and lizard brain reactivity. But the truth is these are completely appropriate and natural instincts that are hardwired into damn near all living organisms. They get a bad rap, although probably none of us would’ve made it past kindergarten without these impulses.

The problem isn’t that we have these physiological responses to cues of threat in our environment. Problems only emerge when we have too much or not enough. Like most things in life, healthy is somewhere in the middle.

Today I’d like to share a little glimpse into Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. He covers the 4F survival strategies in remarkable depth and detail, and the only way to appreciate that man’s brilliance is to scoop the book and read it yourself.

To be clear, the following is not a direct quote from the book — this is all wildly adapted and reconstructed in a way that makes sense to my brain. Who knows if Pete would even agree with it? However, I’m certainly not gonna present any of this as my original work. I gotta give credit where credit is due. That book is easily the best thing I’ve ever read on the topics of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

The following is simply my interpretation of one of many powerful insights contained within that book.

Healthy Amounts of Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

Each of the 4F instincts exists on a spectrum, and we find dysfunctional human behavior at either extreme. Use these descriptions to evaluate your standing within each of the four F’s.

Fight Response

Not enough: Doormat, no boundaries, getting walked on, perpetual victimhood.
Too much: Domineering, bullying, combativeness, narcissism.
Just right: Assertiveness, boundaries, self-respect, healthy self-interest.

Flight Response

Not enough: Lazy, ambivalent, apathetic, indifferent.
Too much: Driven, addictive, workaholic, OCD.
Just right: Efficient, proactive, responsible, engaged.

Freeze Response

Not enough: Manic, anxious, hypervigilant.
Too much: Catatonic, dissociated, depressed.
Just right: Peaceful, mindful, present, serene.

Fawn Response

Not enough: Self-centered, inconsiderate, aloof.
Too much: Servitude, people-pleasing, codependency.
Just right: Helpful, supportive, compassionate.

Understanding Your Personality

Pete delves into various permutations of too much of this and not enough of that to describe some archetypal people like the scapegoat, the super nurse, “smother mother,” etc. in terms of their 4F makeup. It’s genius, and this book is an indispensable resource for anyone who wants to understand themselves and human behavior in general.

What you may discover is that your childhood circumstances (abandonment, abuse, neglect, enmeshment, or whatev) may have given you an overactive fawn or a dormant fight response. Many people then assume that this is who they are — that their trauma response literally is their personality. But that’s not true at all. It just feels that way because trauma responses are so reflexive and deeply ingrained.

But once you can separate who you are from how you adapted as a child, you can begin to recognize that these traits are a lot more malleable than you may have suspected. And then you can fine-tune these 4Fs and get them thangs dialed in.

It’s a great tool for finding the healthy middle.

*This article contains an Amazon affiliate link to the book mentioned

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

4 thoughts on “Fight / Flight / Freeze / Fawn

  1. This is a brilliantly articulated and super helpful summary to narrow down all the complexities inherent in this CPTSD F4 stuff. Not like I know Pete Walker personally, but reading the book too and hearing his own personal story, I do feel pretty certain he would agree with all of this. Thank you for being so driven to find new and more efficient ways to help us all re-organize and re-integrate our way into further healing, Adam. The healing your work consistently exudes is both contagious and extraordinarily powerful.

    1. Why, thank you kindly, ma’am. There is SO much good in a lot of these books I read, and I’m fairly certain general pop isn’t gonna read most of them, so I like to share little gems like this with the masses any chance I get 🙂

  2. I went through an emotional disregulation period over an abandonment situation doubled by a cptsd trauma trigger ( my best friend got a lover and dropped our usual outings… ). Rage, despair, bad 4f… I isolated myself, lost in this stressful state, now the only single of the band. I am a mess, ruminating … I have been glued to the crappy childhood fairy youtube channel for most of the last week. This is a sad and troubling revelation, I am in a bad place now. Losing friends to love and cptsd is shitty.

    1. Oh no, that stinks! Well, hopefully you aren’t truly losing your best friend. Perhaps the relationship is just changing forms, as all things do. But yes, community support and the ability to co-regulate with others is critical. This is why I believe ALL cats and dogs are “emotional support animals.” They literally co-regulate with our nervous systems. Hoping you pull through and find more love and connection on the other side of this pain, Sylvie 🙏🏼.

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