Updated: Dec 2, 2022
‘Fight’ or ‘Flight 'is how people usually refer to how our body reacts to a threat. But there are actually 5 common responses to fear. Learn here how to spot which one, or more, is your fear response.
Firstly let’s just put this into context. Imagine you leave the house today and there is a wild animal outside. You would hope you’d go into flight mode - either by running back into the house or to somewhere else close by. Your survival instinct would kick in and you would automatically know what to do. Yet, where we’re threatened by things that may not be real or are smaller than a wild animal, our primitive brain annoyingly applies the same principle. It can’t tell the different between a real threat and an imaginary one.
So if we could understand the signs of how we respond to fear (or high anxiety), can we stop the response? The answer is no, not completely, as the survival part of our brain is a reflex - it's automatic - but we can make our response calmer, helping us to feel more in control and reducing some of the uncomfortable and sometimes scary physical symptoms that are triggered, such as a racing heartbeat, a somersaulting stomach and a red hot face.
There are actually five ‘Fs’ - fight, flight, freeze, flop and friend. You may spot a few of them in how you respond.
In fight mode, you’re feeling angry or rage. You want to tackle things head-on as you're full of adrenaline, a heightened heart race and blood pumping throughout your body. You may be talking back at people, shouting, storming out of the room or blaming someone else. In this mode you need take a step back, maybe remove yourself from the area of confrontation and try some breathing or relaxation to calm you down.
Avoidance is your best friend here. Everything seems a challenge, an obstacle to be avoided, and you spend most of your time working out how to run away or retreat. You’ll probably feel anxious, your chest will feel tight, you may find it harder in enclosed spaces or social spaces. You may constantly plan what your escape route is - leave early, say you feel ill, make excuses. If you are prone to flight, try grounding exercises to give you time to calm you down, such as 54321 (5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste). Sticking with your uncomfortable feeling and allowing it to pass is another technique, or using distraction to take your mind off the feeling such as playing music or talking to a friend.
In freeze mode, your feet will literally feel stuck to the ground. You don’t know what to do and your mind has probably gone blank. It’s really hard to make decisions or ask for help as it’s just not clear what help you need. ‘I can’t’ will feel familiar words and you may not feel present in a situation - words are going into your brain but not staying there. If you are frozen, or feel yourself going into a freeze, take a few deep breaths and then try and bring your mind back into the present by jolting it. You could try splashing cold water on your face, or inhaling a strong scent such as lavender or looking at pictures of important people in your life. Stroking an object with a soft, soothing texture may also help de-freeze.
You might faint, feel dizzy, or disorientated. Your mind may also shut down to protect you from your stress. If you know you’re going to faint, let people know so they can look out for you or make sure you’re in a safe space. . This can be short-lived or last a long time. If you know you’re liable to black out or faint, try letting people know in advance so they’re aware to look out for you. Ask them to be with you or hold your hand. Flop response may be due to trauma or phobias - ask for help from a professional such as a hypnotherapist to support you with this.
The fawn response involves pleasing other people who are causing you stress to try and diffuse conflict. This could be at work or home taking on too many tasks or spending time with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable. It can also be more serious for people who have experienced abuse. It can be useful to ask yourself “what would happen if I say no?” and to find ways to validate your feelings of self-worth. Examples of validation include “What happened to me was really hard, I accept this” and “I'm being brave and trying something new”. Prioritising yourself will take time and practice and you may need to see a therapist to support you with this.
What can we learn from the 5 Fs?
We aren’t always in control of how our stress and responses to threats show up, but understanding that it’s your body’s automatic way of keeping you safe will help you cope with it better. Knowing which Fs apply to you and techniques to support it will also help.