Informational Article: Fight, Flight, Freeze & Fawn

What is This?

We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight Response”. When looking at the physiology this is the sympathetic nervous system response. The sympathetic nervous system is part of the autonomic nervous system, the involuntary functions of the nervous system. It is the way our bodies handle input that we read as fighting and/or a threat.

Graphic about the physical effect of the fight/flight response

The spinal column starts the process sending the starting signals. Then amygdala recognizes the threat and sends to the hypothalamus which triggers the making of hormones in the pituitary gland. The main hormone involved is Adrenaline, Cortisol & Norepinephrine.

All four responses are essentially involuntary, though the ability to sooth them can be managed. Which one we use is a combination of three main factors. The first is what is advantageous in the situation, for example, a person around your size you might be able to fight while a fire it’s less to just run away from. The second major factor is our own genetics/nature, as kids, we are generally predisposed to different responses. Last main response is as adolescents and adults what did we normally do as kids, we tend to go back on what “worked” as a kid, trauma tends to make the response more ingrained and harder to be able to adapt.

The Fight or Flight Response is also referred to as acute stress response & hyperarousal.

Descriptions of Responses:


The urge to push back against what is happening. It can be as simple as punching & kicking a literal fight. It can also refer to verbal fighting as well as more abstract fighting depending on the situation. But it’s an aggressive response.

The Fight Response is not wrong for being aggressive by any means, often it functions as extremely effective self-defence. Hitting, slapping, biting, stomping etc are all an understandable response if attacked. It is heightened effectiveness by training of the person (if someone knows how to fight muscle memories can kick in) and of course if the person with this response is at a physical advantage.

But it also not the gold star response or better or the only the show in cases of sexual violence and abuse that a person didn’t “want it”. Not having a Fight Response, or a long term Fight Response is not weaker. Fight Response is brave and the right choice if it gets you away, not done wrong if you don’t and no better than anything else.

It is a highly physically taxing response, the body stays heightened and the brain has to keep deciding what to do next. It can also be seen as highly “dangerous” by the mind as it offers the ability for higher aggression by the attacker. This can sometimes have the feeling of being super strong, and sometimes can feel blanked in a “blind rage” or “seeing red”.

It tends to be most common, and effective, during a one-off event like an attack. It tends to be less common in children victims of assault as they are literally much smaller than the attacker and not likely self-defence masters. Long term abuse also tends to weaken this response as it is obviously not being effective so changing response can happen. It might not entirely fade but become conditional or something that someone starts with this response during an episode of abuse but then stops and switching to one of the others. 


Flight is essentially running away. A pretty effective and common response to all kind of stimuli. Running away can work really well, this is often commonly connected with some degree of the other responses. Running away keeps you from being hurt if it works, and is a pretty primal urge to not be hurt. Though running does not mean “run” only. It includes crawling or any other way someone tries to escape.

It is a physically draining response as your body has to work overtime to try and escape as much as possible. Memory gaps have been mentioned during the running, sometimes people might describe not knowing how they got away, they just remember feeling they have to.

There is nothing cowardly about running away from an assailant or abuser.  If it keeps someone alive, then it is strong as anything else. Flight Responses, unlike fight, is common across all groups. But like Fight it can fade during long term abuse.


Freeze is just as it sounds, a person expiring this will go almost or completely still. From the outside, it can often look like “deer in the headlights”. Sometimes a person goes completely stiff or might go “limp” or a “ragdoll”.

It can often involve dissociation, or the ability to disconnect from the world around you. Numbness or feeling cold is something people often describe. Complete memory gaps can sometimes happen, muddled memory is super common. This is probably what happens when someone says the felt like they couldn’t move, or wanted to scream/run and couldn’t at all.

Freezing is in no way weak. It is a natural response, and is never something to be ashamed of doing and does not mean someone didn’t want to stop it.  

Freeze is common across all demographics and types of attacks. It also happens a lot to victims of sexual violence and abuse.

This response is starting to be understood and mentioned more often which is very good. It’ something very important for people to better understand to combat a lot of the “well why didn’t she Fight/leave” rhetoric. Also to help people who are confused about why they did freeze up or felt like they wanted to scream but couldn’t.


Fawn also called the “please”, “feign” or “submit” response. This is essentially just doing what the assaulter or abuser wants you to do. This isn’t a response that happens with many kinds of stimuli like an earthquake or fire. It only happens when someone is being assaulted or abused. It is often the victim trying to be exactly what the abuser wants them to be. It is a survival response like the other three, it’s an attempt to avoid being hurt and to try and often get affection/love from the abuser. The Fawn response is pretty mostly seen in children as this response is not seen in most adults due to the way the brain has developed and the social development. Though a version of this can be seen in long term abuse of adults in domestic violence situations.

This can happen with things like being kidnapped or bank robberies but is super common with abuse victims. Children and long term victimization often experience some degree of a Fawn response. With long term abuse, a victim may have a Fight or Flight Response at first but if the assault continues the victim may end up falling into this later.

Trauma bonding & grooming plays a factor in this as the abuser creates feelings of love and connection. If the abuser is a parent or other family member victims generally really want to please and be loved. Gaslighting and in general being taught something is “normal”. Like I said above genetics/natural inclinations also do factor into this.

Again this is not a sign of weakness or “wanting” the violence. It’s a person, usually a child or abuse victim, wanting to survive. It can be hard for both the victim and outside people to understand why someone would want to please an abuser, do what someone said, or essentially not “kick up a fuss”. But it is just a common way for the mind to try and survive, and something that can be highly influenced by other psychology of trauma.

This is something I hope becomes more understood.


Fight, Flight, Freeze & Fawn responses are all normal and none is the best or worst response. All people have these responses and they are important to understand so we can be in touch with our bodies and minds.

However, child abuse survivors deal with chronic stress wearing down and tend to deal with an altered function of this process. It hurts the body and can affect health both mental and physical. It also puts people on a hair trigger for acute stress response and can make it hard to switch between their stress response and end up being easier to experience later trauma.


  1. Bal, R. Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn? Trauma Responses (accessed Mar 29, 2019). (Uses the “narcissistic abuse” framework one we don’t base our view & advice on)
  2. Fight, Flight, Freeze Responses (accessed Mar 29, 2019).
  3. Hosier, D. Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn? Trauma Responses (accessed Mar 29, 2019).
  4. Klein, S.; Klein, S. The 3 Major Stress Hormones, Explained (accessed Mar 29, 2019).
  5. Tull, M. How the Fight or Flight Response Is a Natural Response to PTSD (accessed Mar 29, 2019).
  6. Walker, P. The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD By Pete Walker (accessed Mar 29, 2019).
  7. CrashCourse. YouTube, YouTube, 13 Apr. 2015,

One thought on “Informational Article: Fight, Flight, Freeze & Fawn

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s