Learning about fight, flight, fawn, and freeze can be helpful, but learning how these responses manifest in our particular bodies is where the magic really starts.
When we understand how fight, flight, freeze, or fawn show up for us, we can develop an internal template to refer back to in moments where we are feeling a lot of emotion (or beginning to shut down and feeling no emotion at all).
This internal template can alert us to when it’s time to take steps to soothe our nervous system and return to our window of tolerance.
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No one has an innate ability to pause during a conflict and reflect “Gosh, I think I might be moving into a freeze response.”
Instead, this realization tends to be something we recognize as we reflect on an experience later. Growing the capacity to check in with ourselves and notice, in the moment, when we are slipping into a fight or flight response is one key to learning how to self soothe, expand our window of tolerance, grow emotionally, and build healthy relationships.
That’s where my new emotion wheel comes in: it’s a tool specifically for helping us recognize when we are moving out of our window of tolerance (where we can listen, learn, and respond thoughtfully) and into a reaction state.
Like the Emotion Sensation Wheel, the Fight, Flight, & Freeze Embodied Wheel is a tool to prompt conversations and build awareness by showing how each of these responses *tends* to show up through physical sensations. It’s not prescriptive- it’s a conversation starter. It’s meant to teach, to stir, and to prompt conversations that build awareness, connection, and embodied experience through somatic awareness.
How to Use this Fight, Flight, and Freeze Wheel
This tool can be used in therapy, classrooms, or even medical settings to help people make connections. See, when we understand how fight/flight freeze or fawn show up for us, we can develop a sort of template that we can refer back to in moments where we are feeling a lot of emotion or beginning to shut down and feeling no emotion at all. If we know, from practicing awareness of what fight/flight freeze and fawn responses feel like, it’s much easier to recognize in the heat of a moment exactly what’s going on and take steps to soothe our nervous system and return to our window of tolerance.
Understanding Fight/Flight Freeze and Fawn in Body Sensations
Not everyone will experience fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. In fact, most people do not experience all of these. Instead, individuals tend to learn in early childhood which response works best to get their needs met (or avoid harm) and, as adults, by default move into that response state when pushed beyond their window of tolerance.
Good therapy and emotional growth grow the window of tolerance and can help us experiment with testing alternative ways to respond to being overwhelmed. Often attributed to the Polyvagal Theory, the fight-or-flight response was actually identified by physiologist Walter Cannon in 1915. 1
Most of us learned, during childhood, one way to react to threats. We continue to use it for a lifetime unless we grow the awareness to help us shift these patterns.
The Fight Response
Everyone knows someone who easily jumps into a fight response with little provocation, but actually, most of us have the capacity to respond with a fight response if the right buttons are pushed.
Usually, the fight response is easy to recognize: raised voices, hot tempers, and even physical altercations.
A fight response can manifest in other ways too, like:
- frantically googling something to prove a point,
- getting a little rush of adrenaline while writing a passive-aggressive note,
- chasing a shoplifter from our business,
- or responding to a perceived slight with a sarcastic remark.
The Fight Response in Relationships
The fight response in relationships is marked by expressing anger and frustration openly, becoming defensive as a way to avoid engaging vulnerability in conflict, and sometimes even instigating conflict to avoid uncertainty, or drama bonding.
How to be in a relationship with a person who defaults to the fight response to stress:
- Avoid escalating conflict alongside them.
- Take breaks. Let them get regulated, and then reengage.
- Express yourself using non violent communication like “I feel” statements.
- Acknowledge their emotions and perspectives, & set boundaries for how you’re treated.
What the Fight Response Feels Like in Body Sensations
The fight response feels like an electrical charge. Bodies in a fight response may feel hot, tensed up, alert, or breathless. Your heart may race it may be difficult to take a deep breath. The fight response is the brain and body’s way of preparing for direct conflict.
The Flight Response
One common way that we respond to stressors is through flight. You probably think of a flight response looking like this bear booking it for the hills – but many times the flight response can be more subtle: fleeing can look like avoiding (pretending you aren’t bothered), delaying (promising to have an important conversation “later”), or distracting ourselves from engaging with conflict.
People who have a sensitive flight response might be known for dramatically storming out during arguments OR quietly slipping away when frustrated OR quietly fleeing through screens, media, exercise, food, or sex. Flight can also look like detaching or dissociating from emotions in order to deal with a threat (although this can quickly blur the line between a flight response and a freeze response)
Flight Responses in Relationships
Showing up emotionally to engage healthy conflict with presence and vulnerability is key to growing deep, satisfying relationships. However, when we have a small window of tolerance, we may feel the pull to run not just when we’re facing down a life-threatening foe, but also when faced with good, generative conflict.
We can grow our window of tolerance and stay grounded and engaged through recognizing how the flight response shows up in our body and practicing how to ground, self-soothe, regulate, and re-engage with the root of the stress.
If you or your partner defaults to flight, here’s how to grow a window of tolerance and learn to stay engaged a little longer:
- Set ground rules, like “It’s okay to go cool off, as long as you tell me & I know when you’re returning.”
- Be a safe person with whom they can learn to stay present.
- Don’t push them, but do set boundaries around their avoidance of important conversations. (for example “We have to talk about this problem, but you can choose where we have the conversations”)
What the flight Response Feels Like in Body Sensations
The flight response feels like nervous energy itching to escape. A body experiencing a flight response may feel panicked in response to feeling literally, emotionally, or relationally trapped.
There may be a literal drive to escape a physical space, or the flight response may manifest in a nonphysical way – such as retreating to an internal world to avoid conflicts in the external world. When you’re in a flight response your body might feel hot, tense, restless, or coiled up and ready to fully if given the chance. Like the fight response, heart rates tend to be elevated during a flight response.
The Freeze Response
Researchers have shown that many wild animals stand a better chance of survival when predator approaches if they freeze rather than trying to run or fight. 2
This ancient survival tactic is engrained in human brains as well. Confronted with a threat- whether it’s an angry customer, an online bully, or more life-threatening situations – it’s not uncommon to find ourselves frozen in place.
Freeze doesn’t just show up in survival situations- it shows up in how we work, parent, and engage (or avoid) discomfort in relationships.
Folks with a smaller window of tolerance, (often due to growing up in homes where conflict was truly scary or even life-threatening) may automatically enter a freeze state as soon as a conversation enters uncomfortable territory. Their relationships may be marked by difficulty expressing needs, engaging conflict, or making hard decisions.
Unlike people who tend towards fight or flight, people who freeze often can’t escape OR engage conflict, but are instead trapped somewhere between.
The Freeze Response in Relationships
Being in a relationship with someone who tends to respond to intense stress by freezing, means engaging conflict (a healthy part growing relational intimacy) can be extra hard.
- ⏳ Give them time and patience, especially during conflicts.
- 🤝 Together, build a relationship where they feel safe to show up.
- 🌱 Support them in taking small steps towards engaging more actively.
- 🚶♂️🚶♀️ Collaboratively create ways to get grounded together, such as going for a walk.
One way to work with a freeze reflex is by learning to recognize the signs that we’re moving out of our window of tolerance. By noticing what the response feels like in our body and taking steps to get grounded when we notice those sensations rising, we can slowly help our nervous system grow the capacity to engage conflict a bit more directly.
What it Feels Like to Have a Freeze Response
Initially, psychology only acknowledged a fight and flight response, however today researchers have identified a more complex map of the ways we respond to conflict. Freeze is a common third way that we may respond to conflict.
The freeze response feels like feeling cold, heavy, or numb. It is frequently experienced as a part of dissociation (link link link) bodies in a freeze response tend to have a lower heart rate and while breathing tends to be deeper people who freeze often report feeling stifled or as if they can’t quite breathe fully. On the outside, freeze tends to look like a person being very still or even nonresponsive.
The Fawn Response
The fawn response is a common reaction to stress. It’s most common for people who’ve experienced complex, inescapable trauma in the past. Not to be confused with freeze (which is inactive) fawning is active – it involves attuning to the threat and figuring out what will appease or neutralize it.
Fawning, unlike freeze, involves an active movement to neutralize a threat.
The “fawn” response usually gets simplified to people pleasing, conflict avoidance, and neglecting one’s own needs, but there are more specific markers we might look out for if we suspect we might be prone to respond to stress by moving into the fawn state.
Here are a few examples:
- Habitually finding yourself in caretaking roles.
- Always going with the flow.
- Saying “yes” even when we don’t want to.
- Participating without enjoyment.
- Placating others to avoid conflict.
The Fawn Response in Relationships
If you’re in a relationship with someone who tends to respond to intense stress by fawning, you might notice that their avoidance of conflict leaves issues unresolved and the potential for growing intimacy unrealized. Help them learn that your relationship is a safe place for engaging conflict through the following:
- 📣 Invite them to name their own needs and wants.
- 🚫 Avoid the temptation to benefit from their compliance.
- 💭 Be curious about what they’re feeling & invite honesty.
- 💖 Let them know that your love & care are not contingent on their actions or pleasing others.
What it Feels Like to Have a Fawn Response
The fawn response feels like going limp or weak. Fawn State is a unique combination of alertness and passive that he. It can often feel like being highly attentive, aware, and attuned to people around us while also having a lower heart rate, feeling breathy, and hypervigilant.
In conclusion, understanding the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses and how they manifest in our bodies is essential for emotional growth and building healthy relationships. The Fight, Flight, & Freeze Embodied Wheel serves as a valuable tool for recognizing these responses in real-time, allowing us to self-soothe and expand our window of tolerance. By developing awareness of these bodily sensations, we can better navigate moments of intense emotion and foster greater self-awareness, connection, and embodied experience. Ultimately, this knowledge empowers us to respond thoughtfully and engage in more satisfying, grounded relationships, contributing to our emotional well-being and personal growth.
Image is a drawing of a Fight, Flight, & Freeze Embodied Wheel by Lindsay Braman.
The inner circle is a solid white circle that reads, “Fight Flight & Freeze: Embodied by @LindsayBraman.”
The second circle – moving outward – is where major response categories are written. Moving clockwise from the top center, the categories read: window of tolerance (grey), flight (red), fawn (orange), freeze (green), and fight (blue).
The third, outermost circle is where the corresponding feelings to those response categories are written. In the grey section of window of tolerance are the feelings of: relaxed, balanced, steady, stable, warmth, grounded, comfort, and soft. In the red section of flight are the feelings of: hot, flighty, trapped, tense, fast heart rate, coiled, and restless. In the orange section of fawn are the feelings of: limp, weak, breathy, slow heart rate, aware, attentive, and attuned. In the green section of freeze are the feelings of: still, numb, frozen, slow heart rate, no air, heavy, and cold. In the blue section of flight are the feelings of: tense, hot, energy, fast heart rate, charged, breathless, and alert.
- King, P. E. (2020). Fight, Flight, or Freezing? Investigating the Immobility Response in Military Veterans. University of North Florida.
- Bracha, H. S. (2004). Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: Adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum. CNS spectrums, 9(9), 679-685.