Talking over your partner to get your point across.
Throwing yourself into work to avoid feeling the sadness of a breakup.
Spending hours bingeing on a TV series when you’re anxious.
Flattering your difficult and critical boss.
Dissociating from your surroundings when you are in a crowded space.
What do all of these behaviours and reactions have in common? On the surface, not that much at all.
But they are actually all coping mechanisms that we can develop to deal with events or situations that feel stressful or frightening. In fact, they are all types of ‘Five F Response’ (commonly known as the Fight-or-Flight Response).
The Five F Responses — Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn and Flop — are an automatic physical reaction to real or perceived danger via a release of hormones in the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This happens when our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) swings into action.
Our ANS is necessary for our survival and when we are using it, signals do not go through the more evolved parts of our brains that are involved with planning, analysing and rational thought. Instead, we switch into survival mode, with every part of us primed to protect ourselves from a threatening situation.
To illustrate how this works, imagine walking alone in the woods and encountering a huge, growling dog.
We can think of this as a threat defence cascade. Initially we might try to defuse the situation with our social engagement system, which is our first line of defence.
If this doesn’t work (or if it isn’t viable), then we move into Fight or Flight — the active responses where we mobilise ourselves to remove the threat (either by removing ourselves or neutralising the source of danger).
If neither of these are possible, then we stay activated and on high alert in Freeze mode, where we can easily switch back into Fight or Flight if needed. In Freeze, another branch of our nervous system causes us to temporarily be unable to move as we scan for further information, staying still and watchful until the danger passes.
In the case of inescapable threat, we might then switch to a passive response of Fawn, when we switch into appeasing behaviour to de-escalate danger, or Flop, where ‘playing dead’ (either through faking it or fainting) is the only viable survival option left.
Essentially, we evolved our Five R Responses as a way of surviving dangerous situations. These responses are just the same as our ancestors would have used and we can see other animals using them too. We need them and they often work very well.
However, problems arise when these survival responses take over our life. In other words, when we get locked into one or more of them as a coping mechanism, often in ways that aren’t appropriate for the current situation. This can include in relationships, the workplace and situations that we perceive to be threatening but aren’t. This is particularly the case if we experienced challenging or traumatic times growing up, so had to find ways of surviving them.
Put simply, when the Five F Responses become a default response to the ‘danger’ of emotional pain, it can cause big problems.
The examples at the beginning illustrate this idea — they all describe people locked into a Five F Response that isn’t helpful to them.
For instance, the person who routinely talks over their partner during disagreements is trapped in Fight. The person who throws themselves into work to escape ‘unsafe’ emotions like heartache is stuck in Flight. The person who binges on TV to suppress anxiety is stuck in Freeze. The person who flatters their difficult boss is stuck in Fawn.And finally, the person who dissociates in a crowded space is trapped in Flop. None of these situations (conflict, heartache, anxiety, criticism or a crowd) pose an immediate physical threat of death, yet they can all feel emotionally threatening to some, triggering the Five F Response.
Yet because none of these situations is an actual ‘dangerous dog’, each response shows up in a less obvious way. In this case, talking over someone becomes the equivalent of picking up a stick (Fight). Keeping busy with work is the equivalent of running away (Flight). Zoning out on TV for hours whilst simultaneously feeling wound up and stressed is the equivalent of standing stock still in the presence of danger (Freeze). Flattering your difficult boss is the equivalent of coaxing a wild animal (Fawn). Becoming disconnected from reality (dissociating) in a crowd is the equivalent of falling to the ground and playing dead (Flop).
Yet why do some people react to emotional threats with a Five F Response? The answer is that it’s not an accident, nor is it the person’s fault. Usually it is because they have experienced some kind of trauma in their past (and particularly their childhood), such as emotional neglect, abandonment or abuse. This can cause a post-traumatic stress response or complex trauma, which essentially causes a person to replay certain Five F Responses over and over again in various areas of their life.
Also, the childhood causes might not always be big, obvious or dramatic events (although of course sometimes they might be). As children's nervous systems can get easily overwhelmed, simply being in an environment where there was tension or conflict between adults — or being left to manage difficult feelings by themselves — could evoke these types of responses. In essence, if we've had traumatic experiences then our nervous systems get shaped and primed to respond in certain ways. These become our default responses to threat and can be readily activated.
Crucially, those responses were often helpful to the child at the time, allowing them to survive physically, mentally and emotionally. For instance, if you had a volatile parent then Flight was probably not possible and Fight might have led to more serious consequences, but responding with Fawning could have kept you safe from danger. While if you were sexually abused, then ‘Flopping’ or dissociating could have been your only form of escape. However, these mechanisms for dealing with stress or threat can become habits and when they're continued through life — even once the threat is over — they can be a lot less helpful.
If you went through traumatic events in either childhood or adulthood then, whenever you encounter a triggering situation, you could fall into a Five F Response by default (and without even realising it). As a result, you could end up living in a reactive Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn or Flop bubble, one where deeper fears and pains are left unaddressed.
This is known as post-traumatic stress response and common signs are:
Because traumatised people see the world as deeply unsafe — and not just physically but mentally, emotionally, socially and financially — they are continuously trapped in Five F reactions. They are stuck in survival mode, unable to truly thrive. Stress, low self-esteem, isolation, difficult relationships, addictions, codependency, mental health issues and physical illness can all arise from this.
And when a traumatised person is not actively being triggered by an upsetting situation, their Five F tendency can still be shaping every decision they make, for instance, in their choice of partner, career or friends. It can underpin everything, on good days and bad. It is much more than an occasional reaction to stress — it is an entire reality filter.
To understand this better, let’s look at each of the Five F Responses in more detail, as well as what can cause people to get locked into them. Before doing so, it’s worth noting that while people with trauma tend to have a primary Five F Response, they will usually have one or two secondary ones. So if you can relate to a few of these — or all — then that’s totally normal.
If one of your coping mechanisms is Fight, then you protect yourself from danger and emotional pain through dominance and control.
You might have issues with short-temperedness or domineering behaviour. You could be argumentative and rather than resolving conflicts, might feel the need to win or be right. You can experience criticism or disagreement as a threat, sometimes being overtaken by a rush of adrenaline and not feeling in control of your reactions. You could also crave attention and feel a need to gain approval as a way of feeling socially safe. You might often feel angry or irritable and hold a lot of tension in your body, for instance, your back and shoulders. Other people can often feel exasperating to you, to the point where you might wonder if they are winding you up on purpose.
It’s also possible that you have issues with emotional regulation or struggle to trust people. For instance, you might always want to ‘get in their first’ by judging or hurting others before you can be judged or hurt yourself. Being vulnerable probably feels very unsafe and threatening to you.
If one of your coping mechanisms is Flight, then you protect yourself from danger and emotional pain through avoidance.
Your way of avoiding connecting with your inner experience might be by always running and being driven — running from pain and driven to somehow be ‘better’ or make things around you perfect. You might always be busy and rushing, or feel that you just can’t switch off, as if your mind and body is always on alert. You could also have issues with work addiction, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), anxiety, panic attacks or ADHD-type behaviours.
Or maybe you are conflict-avoidant and ‘ghost’ people if you feel overwhelmed by them, or simply walk away from social situations that are stressing you out. When faced with difficult emotions (in yourself or others), or with confrontation or conflict, you might panic and look for any chance to escape it. Relaxing or simply doing nothing probably feels unsafe to you and might create deep feelings of unease.
If one of your coping mechanisms is Freeze, then you protect yourself from danger and emotional pain through switching off or disconnecting from it.
Even if you feel very wound up or stressed, you might be unable to take action, for example, procrastinating or being unable to make decisions. You might also experience 'stage fright' when speaking in meetings or giving presentations, or simply noticing your mind going blank in social situations. Freeze is commonly associated with burnout too, so you might go on 'autopilot' after prolonged periods of stress, disconnecting from the world, other people and yourself. This might manifest as symptoms of depression and anxiety.
So when it gets too much, you could find yourself hiding away from everything by socially withdrawing and turning to self-soothing activities instead. These can include dependencies on things like TV, the internet, gaming, drugs or food. Then you might find yourself suddenly becoming aware that many hours have gone by with you immersed in a passive activity, followed by a flood of shame and berating yourself for being ‘lazy’. Or you could be prone to excessive daydreaming and fantasising, or feel that your life is somehow ‘frozen’.
If one of your coping mechanisms is Fawn, then you protect yourself from danger and emotional pain through trying to avoid triggering others.
This means that you put others’ needs before your own, often struggling to assert yourself and set healthy boundaries. This may show up as people pleasing, ‘being no trouble’, taking responsibility for others or taking caring roles. You might also be in a codependent pattern of attracting troubled, controlling or abusive people into your life, or you might chase emotionally unavailable people. You could also have addictive tendencies around love or find yourself in trauma-bonded relationships.
Life to you can often feel like walking on eggshells — you are forever watchful of other people’s responses and fearful that you might accidentally upset them, causing them to reject or attack you. For this reason, it can feel hard to be yourself or express yourself – or even know how you yourself feel and what you need. Instead, you might find yourself monitoring the facial expressions and body language of others, looking for any signs of stress, disapproval or annoyance. You are always primed and tuned into how others feel, ready to give them whatever reaction you think would keep them stable (even at your own expense).
If one of your coping mechanisms is Flop, then you protect yourself from danger and emotional pain through completely shutting down or dissociating.
This distancing mechanism helps to reduce emotional and physical pain in inescapable situations. It is one of the most extreme responses and not as common as some of the others.
In essence, dissociation means detaching from your emotions, the world around you and other people. It can create a dreamlike sense of distance, as if you are watching life through a glass wall. It might show up as depersonalisation, where you feel as if you are somehow outside of yourself, observing your words and actions. Or it might show up as derealisation, where the world and other people don’t feel quite real. You might even lose touch with the present moment and have periods of time you can’t account for when you ‘went somewhere else’ in your mind. In stressful situations, Flop can cause you to become disorientated, faint or lose control of your body.
Both people and trauma are complicated, so while the above is a quick guide to the emotional manifestations of the Five R Responses, it isn’t a complete picture. Yet hopefully, it will give you a better understanding of why certain patterns of behaviour might be rooted in your past.
Yet it is not enough to know about the causes — it is also important to find ways to look after yourself and heal. In the words of Pete Walker: ‘No amount of intention or epiphany can bypass a survivor’s need to lovingly care for himself.’
If you would like to explore this topic more deeply and develop healthier ways to cope with stress and triggers, then therapy can make a big difference. In particular, you might want to consider trauma-focused approaches like EMDR or Body-Focused Psychotherapies, as well as Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT), Schema Therapy or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT).
Yet when it comes to dealing with childhood trauma, therapy isn’t just there to help us to cope better — your relationship with the therapist is also crucial, as it can help you to learn that connection, intimacy and trust isn’t always a threat. That can be the most healing thing of all.
Having an overactive Five F Response is highly distressing, especially if you have had to deal with judgement and lack of understanding from others. Yet it is also possible to learn to manage your reactions to stressors and lay the foundations for feeling a whole lot safer in the world.
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