The Four F's and how they show up
Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn. When we resort to one of these responses, they are usually because we were triggered by unprocessed trauma. You probably have heard of these terms in the past, but I wanted to talk about what they look like and what happens when they show up, as they can be mistaken for other problems and are often misunderstood.
Fight: This one is identified by raised voice, tendency to block out or overpower others, tendency to not listen, leading with anger, can lead to fighting/ altercations. Symptoms can manifest as feeling physically hot, especially in the face, tense muscles, dilated pupils, clenched fists, feeling overly stimulated/alert.
Flight: This one manifests as feeling uncomfortable in the present situation, may feel urges to empty bladder, bowels, or vomit. Urges to to run away or leave the situation and never come back (quit a job, end a relationship on a whim). It can also lead to disassociation; checking out if you can't physically get away.
Freezing; Identified as physically freezing, this one can manifest as the breath and heart rate slowing down, finding it hard to move, or your body getting heavy and sleepy, feeling timid, and afraid to speak up. When the prefrontal cortex shuts down it can be hard to remember or recall things while you are triggered, and you can find that you can't focus or recall things in the moment, making it easy to get tongue tied or stutter, and easy to zone out and disassociate.
Fawn: This one is common in cPTSD/childhood trauma, and is most easily explained as a way of surviving childhood abuse. Fawning is resorting to people pleasing; focusing on getting the abuser or someone who you perceive to be angry at you on your side. Fawning is not meant to be intentionally manipulative, but it can be viewed that way by outsiders. It often looks like dismissing your needs in order for the other person to stop the perceived abuse, and can show up as people pleasing or telling lies to hide the truth or the possibility of confrontation.
After effects: After experiencing one of the four F's, it's normal to feel emotional, overwhelmed, tired or embarrassed, and this is our clue that our prefrontal cortex has come back online and we no longer feel threatened. Often with unprocessed trauma, a memory or flashback from the trauma will trigger the nervous system, but the nervous system is unable to tell that the trauma isn't happening right now, so will take action and switch on the vagus nerve, which will trigger one of the four F's. I have noticed that we often will resort to one of the four F's when experiencing a perceived danger, and this has a lot to do with what has worked in the past. So, if freezing kept you alive as a child, then our hind brain may resort to freezing when we feel triggered to "help" us out of the perceived danger.
EMDR can help permanently stop these reactions by processing the traumatic memories that cause our vagus nerve to activate and "turn on" one of the four F's. In the meantime, polyvagal exercises can help by stretching our vagus nerve and increasing our tolerance to triggers. Next time you feel that one of the four F's are coming on, try going outside for some fresh air, splash cold water on your face, sing a Disney song (trust me, it works!) or make a cup of tea.
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