Flight, Fight, Freeze or Fib, responses to stress and perceived threats by Cathy Pinnock

Ever notice how we repeat the same response patterns when stress or conflict arises. These responses are something we developed early in life and have been carried with us into adulthood.

The Flight response (to flee) is generally defined as the desire to “run” when we find ourselves in a conflicting or threatening situation. It can manifest itself by wanting to quit when things get hard, or conflict arises. Oftentimes in relationships, a person who has a strong Flight response will blurt out to their partner, “I’m out of here” when things get tense, and this leads to a lack of trust and disunity in the relationship.  It causes people to retreat to a solitary place and can take long periods of time to come back and reconcile or never get resolved.

The Fight response (to attack and defend), usually seen in relationships between couples and parents/kids, is the mind and body’s reaction to an interaction or event. When confronted, there is a natural instinct for many to fight and defend their position. We view this as a way to protect ourselves when someone attacks us verbally or physically. Some children will use this response when they feel threatened, however, in some situations it can come across as disrespect to their parents and teachers because they feel they are right. With couples, this manifests itself in condescending, shaming, and manipulative behaviors.

The Freeze response (to become immobile), can be viewed as the body “freezing up or playing dead” when it senses danger and there is an inability to take action. The mind remembers its self-preserving mechanism and may become like a cocoon enveloping a person to protect it from harm or fear. A person is stuck in this position for fear of what may lie ahead.

The Fib response (escape or victory) is something psychologists are seeing more often in children and adults with ADHD. It gives the person self-permission to escape from embarrassment, judgment, or taking responsibility for their actions, by deflecting attention away from the situation and giving them justification to do so. Most importantly, it is activated when there is a perceived threat, and it seems like the best choice to avoid unpleasant consequences, while helping the person preserve self-efficacy and self-esteem, instead of shame and embarrassment. However, it has some obvious consequences. For some, they may see it as “buying time” while they reconcile the disappointment, they have caused by not telling truth and thinking they may not get caught in a lie.

With all four responses, it is possible to experience more than one simultaneously and it is the minds way of protecting self in threatening, stressful and conflicting situations. It has helped some from being harmed and help save some marriages and families from making irreparable mistakes.

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Cathy is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist at Simply Brave. She is motivated to help people find the answers they are looking for to enjoy happiness, find hope and regain personal strength. ⁠