The Four “F”s of Fear: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn
What Are the Four “F”s of Fear?
Those of us who live with PTSD and other anxiety disorders live with frequent, sometimes constant, fear. “The tiger in the tent” refers to the belief, deeply held in our basal ganglia, that we are in immediate danger. We use the four “f”s of fear to help us understand what our “lizard brain” is trying to do.
The “lizard brain” lives in the basal ganglia at the base of our skull. It holds instinct, nightmare, habit, and fear, among other things. Mostly, it holds the things we do “without thinking”. The fearful lizard brain can get stuck wide open if we have trauma in our past. Sometimes it can get stuck open just because the chemicals in our brain are out of whack.
The Tiger in the Tent:
Our anxiety interprets many things as immediate threats. This can include:
- learning something new
- standing up to someone — even someone safe
- driving or riding in a car
- leaving the house
- darkness and/or loud noises
- and too many other things to name
- (anxieties are individual, and no anxiety is too ridiculous to be real)
Let’s imagine for a moment that we live in the jungle, and we are hanging out in a tent to avoid the hot sun. We are just hanging out in the shade, minding our own business, when in walks a tiger. Humans can be a tasty meal for a tiger, so we know we’re in danger. What can we do to avoid being a tiger’s lunch? We use the four “f”s of fear:
Roar! We can attack, yell at, or attempt to intimidate the tiger. We try to roar louder and be scarier than it is. This can be effective if the tiger is mostly full and just wants a nap themselves, but it can also be dangerous if we make the tiger angry. If we are confronting an abusive spouse or a burglar or a boss, we have to weigh the risks. When a child believes that giving in to the fear is “weak”, they can often become “fighters”. Often “fighters” can become people who are excellent at defending others. Activists, teachers, and military personnel are often “fighters”. However, being a “fighter” who is also trying to control other people out of fear can lead to engaging in abuse.
Run away! Run away! like a jackrabbit, we can avoid and leave situations when we’re frightened. This can involve physically changing spaces, or it could be mental. People who change the subject when asked about something difficult are using “flight”. Folks who break up with significant others just as things get serious are running away. People who move from town to town looking for an elusive “home” are often running. Running can be a very useful skill, but it can also make us miss out on important opportunities as we flee. Loud, violent homes sometimes make children lean toward “flight”.
You can’t see me! When we freeze, we imitate the common cottontail rabbit. We hide and hope that the tiger doesn’t see us. Again, sometimes we don’t physically freeze (and sometimes we do!). Sometimes we get stuck, unable to start or end something, or unable to keep going. When we are afraid of trying something new, we often freeze. When we have two equally good (or equally bad) choices we often freeze. Sometimes we freeze because our lizard brain has decided that the whole world is dangerous. When a child has an extremely critical parent, they can become “freezers”.
Don’t eat me, Mr. Tiger! I’m one of the good ones! Most of the time we “fawn” over someone that we think has more power or influence than we have. We try to be useful, helpful, accommodating. We see people fawn a lot in situations of sexual or racial inequality. Children who grow up in chaotic households often become “fawners”, who can grow up to be people in the “helping professions”. “Fawners” can also become people deeply dissatisfied with their lives because they say “yes” far more often than they should.
Picking Favorites of the Four “F”s of Fear:
Everyone has one or two “go to” ways they deal with fear. As I stated in the video, I tend to be a fighter and a freezer. I grew up as a fawner, but I had the bad fortune to be the target of a true sociopath. It is impossible to be “good enough” to avoid abuse when the abuse is the point. So I switched gears and found that in that particular situation I was safer if I fought instead of fawned. This is not true of all domestic violence situations, and should not be taken as a guide for anyone else.
People will pick their favorite methods of dealing with fear over a lifetime of patterns, deciding what works well enough for them, and once a person is past their 20s, those patterns tend to be pretty well set. Fortunately, there is no “best” way to deal with fear among the four.
We should instead attempt to work on understanding how often our lizard brain is lying to us (or wrong) about the tiger being in the tent.
Four “F”s of Fear— Managing Mismatches:
Fighters can feel like a threat to each other and all the rest. Because anxiety is often at least partially genetic, this can cause issues for families with several anxious people. Fighers also have a tendency to get defensive and angry when they are given healthy feedback. Fighters can mitigate this by working on fighting to support the people close to them rather than fighting to control them. They can practice mindfulness and pay attention to their bodies to know when fighting anger is bubbling up. They can also work on a slight “flight” shift through walking away when they feel themselves getting ready to fight.
Fly-ers can be very frustrating partners in intimate friendships and relationships because they have a tendency to avoid conflict. Since conflict (in wants and needs) is often necessary to identify and overcome obstacles in relationships, this can cause problems. This, in turn, leads the fly-er to be frustrated because they want the intimacy they are running from. Fly-ers will often make themselves unavailable if they’ve made a mistake and someone is asking them to fix it. It can be very important for fly-ers to consciously shorten their flights and return as soon as their fear allows them to when their fear isn’t based in a present danger.
It can be very tough to get anything done when your first fear response is to stop and freeze. Freezers often find that their job performance suffers and that they get easily overwhelmed by “everyday” tasks. They will find that in arguments with family they will get overwhelmed and vanish or simply stop responding. When it is time to fix their mistakes, they simply aren’t there. Freezers can often do better when they use things like timers and calendars and alarms to help them break free of their bolt hole and get something done “while the tiger isn’t looking”.
A lot of people think that fawners are more prepared for life than the other three of the four “f”s of fear. On the surface, that might be true. However, fawners often find themselves smothered under the weight of other peoples’ expectations. Worse, they often internalize them as their own. When fawners make mistakes, they will often make promises that they want to keep, but can’t. This can lead to fawners being seen as liars or as fakes. Fawners will benefit from practicing saying “no” whenever they feel safe enough, and working with a trusted person to make those spaces where “no” feels safe, bigger.
An Important Note on the Four “F”s of Fear:
The basis of all four of these fears is that the tiger is in the room. Our brains have convinced us that something deadly is likely to kill us right here, right now. It doesn’t matter whether or not this is true (except in the sense of physical safety). What matters is that our brains believe it. It takes work and patience, and sometimes help and medication, to get the tiger out of the room.
All of my videos, podcasts, and articles that are tagged with “anxiety” and/or “PTSD” will deal with some aspect of how to manage fear and begin to resolve it. If it is running your life, and you have the means, seek assistance from a mental health therapist and/or a doctor. Whether you believe it or not, you are worth it.
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