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Understanding The Stress Response

When getting to know clients, I frequently discuss with them how they respond when they are overwhelmed, anxious, or in the aftermath of traumatic events. Some important phrases to consider are survival mode or reflexes and behaviors, also known as the 4 F's - Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn.

When people describe their lives or occurrences, they frequently judge themselves or throw their hands up in the air as to why they do what they do. One of my responsibilities as a therapist is to assist in the exploration of the function of the behavior, as well as to collaborate with my clients to be'strength-finders' in the sense that a) what they are doing may be them attempting to take care of themselves, and b) that they are taking care of themselves in the best way that they have known how to do so up to that point in time.

We will go over a general overview of the 4 F's, including an evolutionary perspective of how they may be beneficial, signs and symptoms, and resources for a richer and deeper study!

Fight Response

Fight often makes sense to folks in regard to how it can benefit us. If someone or something attacked you and you were able to successfully fight and defend yourself, you would survive the day and be able to pass on your genes to the next generation. 

An important note about fighting is that one needs to believe that they can overpower the threat, or have a reasonable chance of doing so. It is also significant that how we respond to what is happening physiologically in our bodies also needs to be something that is in our wheelhouse, or familiar to us. If I have never hit someone in my life, I most likely will not do so for the first time as someone is attempting to take my purse. In response to stress hormones and our brains perceiving the threat of danger, our choices often contract, and may cause us to go back to reflexes and habits that are familiar or accessible to us.

Symptoms of a fight response may include:

  • Clenched fists

  • Feeling angry

  • Muscle tension

  • Grinding of teeth or a tight jaw

  • Physically fighting

  • Punching a pillow or wall

  • Wanting to hurt or kill someone

  • Yelling, arguing, or verbally attacking

  • Road rage

  • Destroying, breaking, or throwing something

Flight Response

Flight can make sense evolutionarily – if there is a threat that we don’t think we can win against (bear, saber-toothed tiger, impending storm), we can take care of ourselves by instead running away or getting out of the path of danger.

Flight can show up as:

  • Getting fidgety

  • Leaving/retreating from confrontations

  • Feeling trapped

  • Dilated pupils (being able to see more vantage points for exits)

  • Jittery feelings

  • In extreme cases, elimination of bodily fluids (sweat, but also vomit, urine, feces, etc. that would leave us with less to carry)

  • Excessive exercise

  • ‘Running away’ from things/responsibilities

Freeze Response

Freeze response can be adaptive, and also nuanced. Holding your body still in darkness when there is a fear or threat can mean the moment between survival or being attacked, with some animals, such as possums, also freezing and passing out as part of their defense strategies, as a means of throwing predators off. Predators may leave or become disinterested in something that appears dead or does not respond.

For humans, freezing can show up in short bursts as in us ‘freezing’ in the moment. More extreme versions per Jim Hopper (2021) may include:

  • tonic immobility – body is completely paralyzed with stiff, rigid muscles

  • collapsed immobility – blood pressure and heart rate go down, leading to limp muscles and/or causing one to feel or actually faint

Freeze can also look like dissociation, where we are not as connected to our bodies and may feel distant or disconnected. Freeze shows up as:

  • Being lost for words or blanking out in an altercation

  • Feeling frozen to the spot

  • Feeling panicked and believing/not being able to move

  • Wanting to go into ‘your cave’/retreat

  • Not dealing with the threat directly, but escaping/disconnecting from your body in other ways (binging, smoking, sex, picking hair/nails, TV/video games, gambling, FaceBook, phone, etc.)

Fawn Response

The Fawn response (also known as ‘Appease’) is newer and sometimes debated due to this being a habitual pattern vs. an instinct. That being said, it can be something that comes out in times of stress or trauma. It can be seen in the animal kingdom, such as between a dominant or alpha and a submissive member of a pack, such as a submissive member showing their belly or vulnerability, in order to appease the threat and show that there is no harm. It works in response to the same stress hormones and follows a strategy of ‘if I can make them happy and show them that I won’t hurt them, maybe they won’t hurt me or will leave me alone.’

Examples of Fawn may include:

  • People-pleasing

  • Difficulty saying no

  • Feeling badly for having boundaries or limits

  • Self-deprecating behavior or putting yourself down

  • Being unable to put yourself or your needs first

  • Being overly complimentary or obsequious

  • Going along with what everyone wants because it is easiest

What do we do to get out of our trauma or stress responses?

While these responses can all arise as reaction to feeling the physiological stress and fear that comes with a perceived threat, some strategies to slow down, pause, or move through the trauma response may include:

  • Exercising or channeling your stress response into some type of movement

  • Pausing and taking a breath – especially with deep, diaphragmatic breaths that can stimulate the vagus nerve to promote safety in the body

  • Going through the habitual response with the acknowledgement that this is what you are doing now in this moment to take care of yourself, and knowing that you are working to continue to add to your positive coping skills (hint: sometimes a trauma response IS a positive coping skill, such as walking away from someone who is being verbally abusive and dismissing your boundaries!)

  • When you are ready, surrounding yourself with loved ones

  • Taking time to reflect or process (talking out loud, journaling, setting a timer to think about what happened, etc.)

  • Asking yourself if the threat is real, and if:

    • It is something that is within your control

    • Whether it can or will continue to hurt you

    • If you have any choice or influence in how you respond (** note: these are more frontal-lobe-based, and may be difficult if you are in a state of panic)

  • Speaking to a therapist or having a safe place to be able to process and name your experience, as well as what you are going through

One of the important things with trauma responses is not to judge ourselves, but to begin to see what resonates for and is true for us and our experiences, in order to have greater awareness and empathy

When getting to know clients, I often explore with them the ways in which they respond when they are overwhelmed, stressed, or in relation to traumatic incidents. Some helpful terms to think of these in can be survival mode or reflexes and habits, also more commonly known as the 4 F's – Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn.

What are two components of stress?

There are two broad categories of stressors: Physiological (or physical) stressors and Psychological Stressors. Simply put, stressors are factors that cause stress.

Physiological Response to Stress

Physiological reaction includes increased heart rate. Adrenaline leads to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and reduced activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline creates changes in the body such as decreases (in digestion) and increases sweating, increased pulse and blood pressure.

Stress Response System

The stress response, or “fight or flight” response is the emergency reaction system of the body. It is there to keep you safe in emergencies. The stress response includes physical and thought responses to your perception of various situations.

Stress Response Cycle

The most fundamental thing to understand about stress is that it isn't a one-time event with one cause and one reaction. It's actually a cycle with many phases, which means there are multiple opportunities to interrupt it before it turns into a full-blown chain reaction.

What Are Stress Hormones

As your body perceives stress, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure. It's your natural “flight or fight” response that has kept humans alive for thousands of years

What are some effects of negative stress?

Distress can lead to physical symptoms including headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain, and problems sleeping. Research suggests that stress also can bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases.

The Bottomline

When you feel stressed, whether you face a real threat or merely think that you are facing a threat, your body experiences a collection of changes known as your stress response, or your fight-or-flight response. Your stress response is the collection of physiological changes that occur when you face a perceived threat, that is when you face situations where you feel the demands outweigh your resources to successfully cope. These situations are known as stressors.