the 4 fs of fear and stress

Fear and stress are emotions that shape our perception of the world. Whether we grew up often feeling afraid or felt only the occasional nervousness, we can all vividly recount a time in our childhood where we were truly frightened. Throughout our childhood, the circumstances that caused us to feel fear or stress resulted in responses to that exposure. Even if you didn’t grow up abused, each of us encountered situations that impacted our way of reacting. We learned to protect ourselves through our responses to those traumas (big or small). There are 4 fear and stress-based responses, known as the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress. These responses shape your reactions in adulthood.

What are the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress?

These responses are evolutionary and primitive, allowing both animals and humans to survive danger and keep us safe. Any of the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress can be used depending on the situation/threat. A person may also use more than one in a given situation:

Fight

This type of response can be physical fighting as well as using your voice to protect yourself. Examples include attacking, yelling, or attempting to frighten the source of danger. This response can also be seen when trying to control another person or arguing and/or defending yourself.

Flight

This can mean physically leaving a situation that causes fear, or it can be done by mentally checking out. Tuning out stressful situations, changing the subject, or avoiding things that cause fear or stress are other examples. It may also be shown by not getting emotionally close to others or constantly move from place to place. Any attempt to run away in an attempt to protect oneself is an example of flight. (pete-walker.com, 2018)

the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress

Freeze

Freezing may be literal in that we physically stop moving when we feel threatened. It can also be shown by an inability to speak or continue doing an activity. This can include disconnecting from your pain, prolonged sleep or daydreaming, and/or zoning out in front of the TV. This response can also cause isolation from others.

Fawn

This type of response is seeking safety from the person who is making them feel threatened. This can be seen by someone who has little or no boundaries, goes out of their way to please others, and is overly accommodating. Attempts are made to avoid conflict with the perceived threat. This type of response is often a learned response due to a caregiver who is toxic or abusive. The child learns that some form of safety is achieved by accommodating and pleasing that person (betterhelp.com, 2021).

what happens to your body during an involuntary stress response?

When you perceive a situation as stressful or fearful, the physiological stress response begins in the part of the brain that is responsible for perceiving fear, known as the amygdala. The amygdala interprets images and sounds around you, and when it gets triggered, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which then stimulates the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system controls the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the freeze and fawn response. The parasympathetic nervous system also triggers the response that enables your body to go back to its normal state after the danger has passed ( health.harvard.edu, 2019).

When your ANS is stimulated, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol. These two hormones are immediately released, and they may affect your heart rate, breathing, vision, hearing, blood thickening, skin temperature, and/or lowering your feeling of pain. This is done to protect you from the oncoming threat. The specific physiological reaction depends on how you respond to stress, which varies. It is also possible to shift between F responses during the same situation. These reactions are something that happen instantaneously and often without our awareness.

These physiological reactions are triggered by a psychological fear.

These psychological fears or stresses are conditioned from your childhood, and they were triggered when you were first exposed to something that you perceived as stressful and/or fearful. These triggers will vary from person to person.  Your response may be due to a similar situation or something that is associated with a negative experience from your past. When faced with these perceived threats, your brain thinks you are danger (health.harvard.edu, 2019).

The 4 Fs of Fear and Stress are responses meant to protect you. Many people will use each of them at some point based on which is most appropriate to the situation. However, some depend on only one or two of the 4 Fs of fear due to chronic anxiety and/or repeated trauma (pete-walker.com, 2018).  As a result, the autonomic nervous system gets dysregulated. Even when the danger is gone, the person often gets stuck in survival mode and is quick to use their go-to fear and stress response(s). These responses become overused, and the brain gets conditioned to respond to situations that are not threatening.

Are The 4 Fs of Fear and Stress Something We Can Control and Get Rid Of?

The 4 Fs of Fear and Stress happen faster than our conscious thoughts. It is an automatic and physiological reaction. However, it is a learned reaction, meaning that we can gain insight into the types of responses we have, how they affect our body, and whether or not those reactions are truly needed depending on the circumstances.

We can recognize that although these responses helped us in our past, they are not serving us now. We can learn ways to cope with an overactive fear and stress response. As a result, the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress can be used when they are necessary, as opposed to constantly.

How can we overcome the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress Response if it is being overused?

(1) Seek professional help

A mental health professional can help you to deal with your past trauma(s) and anxiety. They can work with you to manage your overuse of the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress.

(2) Breathing exercises

Learning how to regulate your breathing can be helpful because your breathing gets altered when you are experiencing the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress. Some breathing exercises to regulate your breathing are:

  • Take a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, and then exhale slowly.
  • Belly breathing- instead of breathing from your chest, let your belly rise when you inhale and lower when you exhale
  • progressive relaxation exercises- this is one of my favorites and I’ve discussed it in several of my posts. Working your way from one end of your body to the to the other, inhale while contracting/tensing the body part, hold the contraction and your breath, then exhale and let the body part relax.

(3) Exercise

This is a simple and effective way to calm the nervous system. It lowers the energy created in the body and it is a simple and quick thing to do when your heart rate goes up. Even a few minutes of jumping or running in place will get your heart rate up and help you! It also releases endorphins, which make you feel happier. An added bonus is that incorporating exercise into your routine is good for your physical well-being.

(4) Get curious about what you are experiencing

Once you have learned to calm your body down using the skills above, you can start practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a technique where we observe (as opposed to judging) how we feel and where we feel it in our body. It allows us to focus on the present. Mindfulness is helpful because you learn how your body experiences the 4Fs of Fear and Stress, as well as the accompanying emotions and thoughts. Your body automatically reacts, but when you recognize the physiological reactions that take place, it is easier to take a step back. With practice, you can notice the thoughts and emotions that occur with it and decide what to do (such as recognizing how you are feeling, but letting it go), as opposed to acting on auto-pilot.

We do not have to believe and act on every thought we have.

Learning to notice your automatic physiological response and not act on it is not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of practice as well as understanding that change will not happen overnight (drsoph.com, 2020).

A great mindfulness exercise is known as RAIN. It comes from Judson Brewer, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety (westmichiganwoman.com, 2020):

  • Recognize/Relax- recognize what you are experiencing in your body and any thoughts or feelings
  • Accept/Allow- Hold space for what you are experiencing instead of running away from it or judging yourself for it
  • Investigate: Go deeper and explore those experiences- where am I feeling this in my body, what other thoughts am I having
  • Note/Not Attach- Understand that you are having these feelings and experiences, but they do not define you. Thoughts and feelings will come and go.

(5) Remind yourself that you are safe

When you are better equipped at recognizing how your body feels in response to the 4Fs of Fear and Stress, you can remind yourself that even though you don’t feel safe, you actually are not in any real danger.

(6) Practice these techniques when you are not feeling triggered

Incorporate these strategies into your daily routine so that you are comfortable with them. This, in turn, will allow you to better recognize your physiological reactions when you feel triggered.

(7) Grounding techniques

There are many that I discussed here, but a common one is the 5,4,3,2,1, which uses all of your senses to help you focus on the present moment. For example, you can notice 5 things you see, then 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can smell, 2 things you can hear, and 1 thing you can taste. Focus on your surroundings intensely so you can pick up on sensations you may not normally realize.

(8) Social Support

It is important to have healthy social relationships. This will help you to feel more supported and secure, which makes you feel less triggered.

(9) Strategies for the overuse of each specific F of Fear Response (pete-walker.com, 2018)

Note– For any of the F responses, the above strategies, therapy, and a growth mindset are integral in managing their overuse. Below is what you can do additionally based on the overuse of one of the F responses: 

Fight– educate yourself on how this type of F response can be harmful rather than helpful (through self-help and/or professional help). If your body is constantly in fight mode, it can result in controlling behavior and frequently being defensive and angry. Try finding a healthier outlet for those tendencies such as supporting causes and defending people who you care about. Pay attention to your physiological responses and start working on taking a break when you feel the fight response.

Flight– if this is your specific F response, you are often a workaholic and/or always on the go. Perfectionism is common, as well as anxiety and over-planning. Meditation is helpful to learn how to stay in the moment.  Working on how to gradually shorten the amount of time you flee is also helpful. 

Freeze– this is the most difficult F response to treat because this type is typically reluctant to seek professional help. Additionally, they are often in denial about their tendency to disassociate. It may be helpful to use timers and calendars as reminders to get things done (oomm.live, 2019).  

Fawnboundaries are especially helpful for this type of response. It’s also necessary to start recognizing and prioritizing your own emotions and thoughts (mindbodygreen.com, 2020). Therapy is also beneficial in helping such an individual develop a sense of self and practice assertiveness.

Takeaway about the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress

These responses are our brain’s way of protecting us from fear, danger, and stress, which are controlled by our autonomic nervous system. They are automatic, often appearing before any conscious choice becomes involved. They are meant to keep us safe, and each one has its place and purpose. Even if you are stuck in a dominant or hybrid type, the most important thing is to give yourself compassion and love as you gain a deeper awareness of the 4 Fs of Fear and Stress.

 

cycle of codependency

Codependency is a huge buzzword nowadays. Everywhere you turn there are people preaching about how to break the cycle of codependency.

I agree that codependency isn’t healthy. That said, it is so easy to fall into that cycle, and it is difficult to overcome.

For many, codependency was normal for us growing up. If you had a parent that you took care of (as opposed to the other way around), you learned that your happiness and safety were dependent on the other person’s happiness. There were no boundaries, and your feelings were ignored or minimized. You were made to feel guilty for trying to prioritize your well-being. Furthermore, you learned that your well-being and sense of self were completely contingent on the well-being of someone else. When that person was happy, you felt loved and needed. By default, if the adult was upset or unavailable (emotionally or physically) to you, you felt worthless and unloved.

caught in a cycle of codependency

cycle of codependency

I grew up having the belief system that it was my job to make my mother happy. I listened to her marital and life problems, tried to cheer her up, and felt good about myself when I felt she needed me. When she had nothing to do with me, I felt like a complete failure as a daughter and as a person. I tried to do everything possible to get her love and approval. As a result, I made myself completely available to her. I was so available that I spent two hours of my honeymoon trying to calm her down due to her recent breakup. Her feelings were always prioritized over mine, and I felt it was my job to make sure she was okay.

She relied on me to comfort her and be there for her, and I relied on her positive opinion of me to feel valued and loved. We were the definition of codependency.

Based on a belief system that was engrained into many of us, we believe as adults that our partner’s well-being and happiness is our responsibility. After all, that is all we know and were taught from a young age. As a result, it was only natural that my cycle of codependency with my mother translated into a codependent relationship with my spouse.

MY SPOUSE AND I WERE MUTUALLY DEPENDENT ON ONE ANOTHER

 

When my husband started heavily drinking and then taking pills, I felt like it was my job to make him sober. I believed that it was up to me to figure out how to make him stop. When my efforts failed, I felt like a complete failure. Taking care of my husband and making him get clean was my responsibility. I believed I was a terrible wife unless he stopped using.

My value as a person was completely defined by the well-being of those I loved. I thought it was my role as a wife and mother to completely devote myself and my happiness to them. This way of thinking made it so that other people were responsible for my own feelings of security and safety. This helped to perpetuate my cycle of codependency in my relationships. When the roller coaster of my husband’s addiction took me for a ride, my feelings of self-worth plummeted or soared with it. It became my obsession to save my husband.

At a certain point I reached my own rock bottom. I saw how vicious the emotional cycle was of trying to make him better/save him. I realized that focusing all my efforts on him was a distraction so that I didn’t have to heal my own wounds and trauma. If I was focusing on someone/something that was out of my control, I didn’t have to fix what I had control over- myself.

how to break the cycle of codependency

I finally realized that my happiness was my responsibility, and I learned a lot about the codependency cycle. It was both terrifying and empowering to know that my happiness was my job, just as others are responsible for their own well-being and happiness. The book Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself by Melody Beattie was extremely helpful and enlightening. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it on your path to ending codependency.

It was up to my husband to get clean, and I couldn’t make him do that. I could support him and love him, but I could not fix him. Accepting that and focusing on myself was how I would break the cycle of codependency.  

I also established clear boundaries with my daughter. I’ve instilled in her that her job is to learn from her mistakes and take responsibility for her actions. I do not want her to feel responsible for others. My daughter knows that the decisions my husband and I make are our responsibility. It is our job to take care of our child, not the other way around.

Another thing I reinforced is that it is imperative and healthy to feel and share your feelings with those you love and trust.

I remind her that I can offer support or advice, but I cannot make her feel better. I don’t discuss my adult problems with her, but I am open about my feelings and model tools that I use to feel better. 

When my daughter tries to get involved and tell me and my husband what to do, I remind her that she has control over her actions and not others. I explain that she should focus on being the best version of herself, as it is also each of our individual responsibility to do so.

being interdependent instead of codependent

interdependent instead of codependent What I now strive for is interdependency. It is empowering to not allow others to make me feel whole and valued. I can be vulnerable and supportive with my husband, but ultimately, I control and am responsible for how I feel. My relationships are still valued, but I also value myself separately from my role as a wife and a mother.

The biggest hurdle for me was giving myself the space I needed to feel whatever I was feeling. I felt that I had to justify my feelings to my husband in order for my feelings to be valid. It is a work-in-progress to accept that my feelings are valid regardless of what he or anyone else thinks.

It took a lot of trial and error for me to apply my interdependence into all aspects of my marriage. Breaking the codependency cycle means reminding myself everyday to focus on myself and to give myself the love and care that I craved so desperately from others.

self-growth and mutual support is the key to happiness

I learned the importance of each of us being responsible for our own growth, while supporting and encouraging each other. Sure, there are things that I wish my husband would do differently. It is not my job to change him or to fix him. He is not a project or a little boy. He deserves to be treated as a man who can make his own choices. I have set clear boundaries of what I cannot except. My husband is aware of my boundaries. My choices are to accept and love him as he is or walk away if any issue is a deal breaker.

I am the happiest I have been in a long time because I am now the source of my well-being. I am not a princess waiting to be rescued, nor am I a martyr trying to save everyone to the detriment of myself. Instead, I am focused on working on myself, and looking inward for love and compassion. That, in turn, allows me to be the best wife, mother, and person I can be.

struggling with an eating disorder

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words shall never harm me…” but they do. They sting and linger. The harshest ones repeating over and over in our minds until they make us, define us.  This guest post was written by my sister, Kari, about her struggle with an eating disorder:

I was the girl teased for what I had always tried to cover – a birthmark on my nose and forehead. I was different, I was ugly, I was flawed. If someone loved me, then maybe I could learn to love myself. Any time a guy showed interest in me, I was blind to everything other than his acceptance. Everything he did was okay, nothing was a deal breaker, nothing was worth not having his love.

I married young. I had just turned 22, more than a year since my parents divorced. My sister and I watched them fight our entire lives. The dissolution of their marriage hit me harder than I expected. When it happened, I felt broken. Alone. I wanted a family, stability, happiness.

my struggle with an eating disorder

For my 21st birthday, I let my boyfriend of almost 2 years know my desire to wed. He was almost 7 years older than me, and when we met, I was in awe of him and the various things he had experienced in his life. It didn’t matter to me that he would go out every night after work to bars when I was underage and couldn’t go. It didn’t matter to me that he chose video games instead of me. He liked me, loved me, found me adorable – his 6’ frame towering over my 5’ one. I used my size to my advantage, just as I had watched my 4’11” 90lb mother do to my father.

There were several warning signs prior to the wedding, and I ignored them all. “You found someone who loves you, no marriage is perfect,” I would tell myself. As I walked down the aisle, I felt beautiful, an unfamiliar and foreign feeling. “This is my happily ever after,” I thought, secure with the decision to marry him.

That night we returned to our apartment to pack for our honeymoon the next day. I expected him to sweep me off my feet, carry me to our bed, to want and desire me. After he placed the luggage by the door, he walked to his computer and turned it on, settling into his gaming chair.

I no longer felt beautiful. I was insignificant, discarded, lonely.

Loneliness was part of this new chapter of my life. I couldn’t go back and undo my marriage. Our lives and families were now intertwined. I felt trapped, desolate, miserable. I didn’t understand why he didn’t want to be home with me. The same man who had captivated me was slowly destroying me, yet I had no idea how to tell him.

During this time, my sister was planning her wedding. We had gone to look at dresses for her and the bridesmaids. When we were measured, I learned I was a size bigger than her. I’ll never know what caused it, but suddenly, I needed to be smaller. Maybe it was because I saw how much my soon-to-be brother in law loved my sister. Maybe it was because I equated being small and cute with being loved.

Perhaps I was looking for anything to overshadow my loneliness.

That night I weighed myself. I was 109 pounds. More than 10 pounds heavier than my sister. So I researched how to lose weight and decided to restrict my calories. I began to write down everything I ate, cutting out 100 calories at first, then 200, 500. I began to look forward to the time alone, not having to worry about eating with my husband. Each night I’d go to bed hungry but satisfied, finding happiness in making my caloric goal.

counting calories

I’d get lost in plans for the day’s meals. All day I’d revise the planned meals, finding substitutions and saving calories. It consumed me. I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself and my marriage. Every morning I’d get on the scale and weigh myself, shocked by how quickly the pounds were dropping. The more I’d lose, the more I wanted to lose.

My friends and coworkers started noticing the sudden weight loss.

I welcomed the attention, but isolated myself more, making excuses for not wanting to see anyone. I waited for my husband to notice. He didn’t. I restricted more and more until I was eating no more than 500 calories a day. Never a fan of exercise, I’d walk to work and home again- an hour walk each way, making detours to lengthen the trip and burn additional calories.

I had dropped almost 20 pounds before my husband finally said something. My clothes no longer fit, my hair fell out and thinned. I was weak and tired all the time; however, I finally had his attention. He commented on how little I was. He said I needed to put meat on my bones again, but it wasn’t enough for me. I couldn’t gain weight now. Since I lost weight so quickly from barely eating, I thought I’d gain it all back just as quickly.

I was irrational, I was obsessed, I was taking control of my life by controlling every morsel I ate. I was struggling with an eating disorder.

Anorexia consumed my life. I never hated myself more. I refused to look in mirrors because I knew my clothes hung from my gaunt limbs. My male coworkers began to tease me, perhaps thinking it was all in jest about my appearance. All the things said to me in my youth were repeating themselves. Flawed, ugly, different.

I needed to eat. I couldn’t. It was a vicious cycle. My mother intervened, furious at my husband for standing by while I withered away. I felt like I was a burden to him and my mother. I stopped seeing my family. All day I wouldn’t eat so when he was home I’d eat, pretending I was getting better by snacking on a sugar free popsicle, knowing he would never check that it was only 15 calories.

Somehow I found the strength to look at myself, disgusted by the absence of my once slender, but curvy frame. Something inside of me surrendered, and I wanted to be me again. I got dressed and went to get pizza, something I had avoided for months. I ate 3 slices. and I felt good. The worst was behind me. Or so I thought.

Addiction isn’t something we control.

I controlled what I ate until the addiction took over and I was anorexic. There was nothing else to me, no traits, no personality.

everyone deserves love

Like any addiction, this will always be a part of me. I may be able to eat now, but I still know the nutrition facts to every food I eat. There is not one moment where I don’t reconsider eating or try to find a way out of eating at a restaurant. It took a few more years and struggling with another eating disorder, but I have finally found my true happily ever after.

My name is Kari. I am different. I am flawed. No, I am not ugly. I deserve love. I am loved….and if someone ever tries to make me feel different, well, as they say, “sticks and stones will break some bones…”