The ‘fight or flight’ stress response has been a foundational concept in understanding our body’s automatic reactions to perceived danger.

This idea later expanded to illustrate the instinctive ways our bodies and minds respond to threats to encompass a broader spectrum of instinctive reactions. These are collectively known as the 5 Fs of Trauma Response: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, and Flop.

stress-response The 5 Fs of Stress Response

The Role of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

At the core of these trauma responses is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), a key component in how we respond to danger.

When we encounter a threatening situation, the ANS is triggered, releasing hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This activation prepares our bodies for immediate action, bypassing the more evolved parts of our brain responsible for planning and rational thinking. We essentially switch into a survival mode, with every aspect of our being primed to protect ourselves.

Stress Response or Survival mechanisms

Each of these responses represents a deeply ingrained survival mechanism, employed by our bodies and minds in the face of real or perceived threats. They are not choices, but rather automatic, biological reactions that occur in our nervous system. Understanding these responses is crucial in recognizing the profound and often lasting impact of traumatic experiences on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Real or Perceived Danger

Untitled-design-2024-04-06T210414.761 The 5 Fs of Stress Response

These responses are not just limited to life-threatening situations; they can also be triggered by emotional threats or stress.

For example, a heated argument, a stressful work environment, or even an overcrowded space can bring on these survival mechanisms. This is particularly true for individuals who have experienced trauma, especially in their formative years. Their ANS may become conditioned to respond to certain cues or situations in ways that were once protective but may no longer be appropriate or helpful.

Looking at the 5 F Stress Responses

  1. Fight Response: In the fight response, individuals confront danger directly. This can manifest as physical confrontation or verbal assertiveness. People in this state may display behaviours such as talking over others to assert dominance, often feeling a rush of adrenaline during conflicts. They might experience difficulty with emotional regulation and may perceive criticism or disagreement as threats.
  2. Flight Response: Flight is about escaping from a threatening situation. It often manifests as avoidance behaviour, such as immersing oneself in work to escape uncomfortable emotions like heartache. This response can also include physical behaviours like leaving a stressful situation. People in this mode are often busy and driven, possibly exhibiting symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks.
  3. Freeze Response: The freeze response involves a sort of mental and physical ‘shut down’ in the face of danger. In this state, individuals might become immobile or unable to take action, like procrastinating or feeling paralyzed in social situations. This response is common in scenarios like prolonged stress or burnout, where a person may disconnect from their surroundings, retreating into passive activities for comfort.
  4. Fawn Response: The fawn response involves a strategy of appeasement in the face of threat. This response is characterized by an excessive eagerness to please and placate others, often at the expense of one’s own needs and boundaries. It can manifest as people-pleasing behaviour, difficulty in saying no, or consistently prioritizing others’ desires over one’s own. Individuals with a fawn response might find themselves in codependent relationships, always seeking approval and validation from others.
  5. Flop Response: Flop is an extreme form of dissociation that occurs when an individual feels completely overwhelmed by a traumatic situation. It involves a psychological and physical ‘shutdown,’ where a person might become numb, disoriented, or even faint. This response is a protective mechanism, allowing a person to mentally and physically escape from an unbearable situation.


Understanding and acknowledging your primary trauma response is an important step in healing. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore these responses and their origins, from there on, individuals learn to recognise their automatic responses and develop healthier ways to cope with stress and triggers.