More Than Fight or Flight: The 4F’s and How They Relate to Trauma

We’ve probably all heard of the fight or flight response – that is, the innate way that the body responds to actual or perceived threat. For years it’s been thought that we’ve evolved to respond to danger in one of two ways: conflict or escape. An individual engaged in these responses may experience physiological effects such as rush of adrenaline and cortisol in order to prepare the body for either strenuous activity. 

From the outside perspective, individuals who rely on the fight response may also be prone to starting fights or arguments, display a short temper, or be considered narcissistic as adults. Individuals experiencing a flight response may avoid conflict or difficult conversations and walk out of a tough situation. 

While these responses are backed by modern research, trauma specialists are becoming increasingly supportive of the view that several other responses to treat exist – sometimes referred to as the 4Fs. These additional responses include freeze, and more recently, fawn. Freeze can be understood as dissociating or disconnecting from the present experience. Someone engaged in a freeze response may emotionally or mentally detach, become unresponsive, or be unable to move. Finally, the fawn response involves making efforts to protect the self by pleasing. This can take shape as difficulty saying no, keeping true opinions to one’s self, flattery, or focusing on the needs of others with the conscious or unconscious motivation of appeasing them and avoid danger.

Why is understanding all 4F’s important?

Before breaking down the importance of recognizing the 4Fs, it is important to understand that these responses occur instinctively and without rational deliberation – we rarely know how we would actually react to a threatening situation until it occurs. As such, no one reaction is better, more affective, or more valuable than any other. The utility of each depends on the individual and context and may shift over time.

The freeze and fawn responses may be more common among women, children, victims of sexual or domestic abuse, and other individuals who may feel less likely to out-running or physically overpower their opponent. As such, freezing to avoid conflict, giving in to coercion, or allowing something to happen that is actually against one’s wishes are all instinctive responses that are employed because they feel like it’s the best chance at survival in the moment. Ultimately, understanding the various ways that the body may respond to stress is critical to supporting survivors and combatting rape-culture and other societal dangers.

Finally, it is important to note that traumatic experiences and prolonged stress may cause the areas of the brain responsible for threat detection to go into overdrive, making the individual feel like they may be in danger even when no threat is actually present. This can cause individuals to fall into one of the 4F’s in context that may seem unnecessary to others. Furthermore, these responses are not exclusive to what we call “big T trauma” (e.g., death, injury, war, etc.). A particularly upsetting comment, argument, or stress of any kind (“small t trauma”) can also activate a stress response. 

By normalizing these responses as being no way less honourable and understanding how they may impact day-to-day interactions, we can work towards removing some of the shame attached to traumatic experiences and offer more safe and inclusive spaces to heal.

1 thought on “More Than Fight or Flight: The 4F’s and How They Relate to Trauma”

  1. I really appreciate your use of “big T trauma” and “little t trauma”, as sometimes it can be unsettling when we have big emotions over “small” issues. Teaching people about the different responses is key to normalizing them, so thanks for your thoughtful article Olivia!!

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