I don’t know when I first heard the phrase, fight or flight. It may have been in ninth grade biology class, but it was probably before that, in a precociousness-inviting moment associated with observing cat behaviors at home with my articulate, educated mom.
Meanwhile, the field of trauma research added a third “f” word, freeze. People who have had traumatic events in their lives tend to have a stronger threat reflex. When activated, this defense results in immobilization, speechlessness, and cognitive blocking.
This is the era of the brain, and our understanding has increased about the neurological effects of trauma, which, in turn, influence emotions and behavior.
So, we have been working with fight, flight, freeze for a while.
As a relationship coach, I use the concept and the phrase often. What’s underneath most couples’ arguments is perceived threat. I study and work with trauma triggers that take the form of interpersonal conflict, or even just disagreement. We are animals, and we react to perceived threats with instinctual self-protective behaviors.
Fight, flight, freeze is a survival instinct that activates when an animal is about to attack us (human or otherwise), a train, bus, golf ball or any flung object is suddenly coming at us, or when our partner just did something that triggers us, such as use a tone of voice that lands on us in a negative way.
There is a discernment to be made between cases of violence or any partner abuse vs. emotional reactivity that is receptive to change.
Couples coaching, marriage therapy, relationship counseling are all contra-indicated (not recommended) when there is a paradigm of physical, verbal, and/or emotional control and intimidation, otherwise known as domestic violence or abuse.
In garden-variety neurotic relationships, there are myriad perceived threats daily with our partners. Many of them go undetected in the conscious realm, but nevertheless, we do a lot of reacting to our partners with psychological and behavioral defenses.
Recent research by Pete Walker, MA, MFT, in his book, Complex PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving, has landed upon yet another layer to our understanding of trauma histories and patterns of reactivity that stay with us. He identified what he calls CPTSR, or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Response, and has added a fourth “f” word – fawn – to the mix.
The discovery of fawning as a re-triggered, post-traumatic response lends a great deal to our understanding of codependency in dysfunctional relationship dynamics. I cringe when I inform clients of this added term, as it is unflattering to see this in one’s self.
Sometimes, when confronted with disagreeableness or negativity in their partner, or in others, people lean in and do more for the person, to serve them in some way, to appease them in order to avoid or end the conflict.
And so, in recent months, I have come to use the term fight, flight, freeze, fawn when discussing human emotional reactivity patterns. Until the other day, when I suddenly realized a fifth “f” word!
The universe can be very generous when the note is hit. The “f” words keep piling up. This most recent one cannot be denied. I have noticed it in myself at times, and have tried to help couples make space for it for years, as it sometimes occurs in sessions when discussing very sensitive and difficult topics.
It’s the fumble. The nervous laughing, the dropping of something on the floor, the spilling of the coffee, the forgetting the thing you reminded yourself to remember multiple times. This is another face of the fear-based response to threat. To fumble, to make a mistake, a blunder, a jolting, spazzed-out move.
So, there it is – a five “f” word phrase for our humanly emotional reactivity responses to threat, particularly accentuated when we have trauma or extreme stress in our backgrounds: fight, flight, freeze, fawn, fumble.
People are triggered by different things, and relationships develop patterns of triggers in each partner – a kind of dance step that gets repeated. There are reliable tools to understand the dynamic in couples, and help them change to a more effective mode of handling emotions, communication, and relating – a better dance. These are the tools of my trade.
The bottom line is that we must learn to identify our own triggers – especially those sparked by our partner’s behavior – and our partner’s triggers – especially those sparked by our behavior, and to take action and communicate in ways that prevent and manage them more consciously and productively.