The Four Fear Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

Close-up of worried man with eyes closed at home

Maskot/Getty Images

The emotion of fear is a core part of human experience. Our brains are wired to experience fear as a way to warn us that we might be in danger. Although things like brain damage can affect our experience or even render someone incapable of experiencing fear, most people feel afraid sometimes.

What happens when we feel afraid? What steps does our brain take to keep us safe, and how do we respond?

Fear and the Brain

The human experience of fear begins in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes many of our emotions. When the amygdala is activated due to possible danger, it elicits the fear response. This can happen when we are in actual danger, when we believe we are in danger, when we experience "scary" stimuli (like a horror movie, for example), or when the amygdala is artificially stimulated.

While the amygdala processes emotional experiences, the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex control things like language and impulse control. When we experience fear, our brain re-routes energy to the amygdala, slowing down processing in other areas. That is why it can be difficult to speak or make rational decisions when we are afraid.

Fear Responses

When we experience fear and the amygdala is activated, our brain makes quick decisions about what to do next. Our brain's goal is to make the decision that will keep us safe, the choice that will get us away from the perceived danger with minimal harm. When someone has a history of trauma, their brain might become more likely to activate this response in anticipation of future danger.

This response can be described through four categories: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fight

The mystic Rajneesh said, "Anger is fear in disguise," and this succinctly sums up the fight response. When the brain perceives danger, it might choose to try and fight off the threat. This can manifest as a physical or verbal altercation and is accompanied by an intense angry feeling.

When we experience the fight response, our brain is trying to ward off danger by defeating it. If the danger is real and can be overcome with physical strength, this can be an effective tool to keep us safe. But when the perceived danger is not actually a threat, this can get us into trouble.

Flight

If our brain does not feel that it can successfully fight off danger, it may decide to try and escape, triggering a flight response. Essentially, this response involves trying to get as far away from the dangerous situation as quickly as possible. If the danger is something that can be outrun, the flight response can be effective.

Freeze

Another fear response is to freeze, or try to be very still and quiet until the danger passes. Some people with extreme social anxiety might experience selective mutism, where they find themselves unable to speak in anxiety-provoking situations; this is an example of the freeze response at work. Their vocal cords become paralyzed due to fear, and they are unable to speak until the anxiety passes.

Evolutionary theories suggest that the freeze response might be the brain's attempt to avoid detection by predators by essentially holding very still until the threat goes away. The fear response shuts down the body's ability to move, causing the person to literally feel frozen or stuck until the fear passes.

Fawn

"Fawning" is a fear response where the brain decides to try and please whoever is triggering the fear response to prevent them from causing harm. This response is common in survivors of trauma, who might try to avoid abuse by keeping the abuser as happy as possible. This can also manifest as compliance to avoid being hurt.

If someone complies with an aggressor to reduce the risk of physical harm, they are not consenting to abuse. Their brain is simply trying to keep them as safe as possible in a bad situation.

Can You Change Your Fear Response?

Because the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are chosen so quickly, we are typically not actively deciding which response is most effective or appropriate in a given situation. These processes happen automatically because, when we are in danger, there is often not time to sit and weigh our options. Our brain simply does its best in the moment. Unfortunately, this means we often do not make the most effective choices when the amygdala is activated.

For example, a person might lash out at their spouse due to a fight response when feeling anxious about work. They might freeze and be unable to deliver an important presentation.

Mindfulness of our emotions can help us to notice when we are having a fear response and try to re-activate the logical part of our brain. When we notice that we are experiencing this response, we can try and make a different choice. Research shows we can train ourselves to respond differently to fear.

Frequent, intense fear responses when there is not an actual threat can be a sign of anxiety. If you find that you avoid situations that are not actually dangerous due to fear, get into frequent arguments, or put others' wants and needs ahead of your own to your detriment, you might be experiencing fear responses.

Because fear is one way our brain keeps us safe, it would not be healthy to never experience a fear response. For example, early humans who did not experience fear probably tried to pet the saber tooth tiger instead of hiding, a choice that probably did not end well for them. We want our brains to accurately perceive whether or not something is a threat and make the best choice to keep us safe.

A Word From Verywell

If your fear responses occur often when there is no danger or more intensely than the situation requires, you might be experiencing anxiety. Fortunately, anxiety can be treated through therapy, exposure, and medication.

Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are how our brain keeps us safe in potentially dangerous situations. Understanding the mechanisms behind these responses can help us be aware of and regulate our emotions in an appropriate and healthy way.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Feinstein JS, Adolphs R, Damasio A, Tranel D. The human amygdala and the induction and experience of fearCurrent Biology. 2011;21(1):34-38. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.042

  2. Inman CS, Bijanki KR, Bass DI, Gross RE, Hamann S, Willie JT. Human amygdala stimulation effects on emotion physiology and emotional experienceNeuropsychologia. 2020;145:106722. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.03.019

  3. Andrewes DG, Jenkins LM. The role of the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in emotional regulation: implications for post-traumatic stress disorderNeuropsychol Rev. 2019;29(2):220-243. doi:10.1007/s11065-019-09398-4

  4. Lojowska M, Ling S, Roelofs K, Hermans EJ. Visuocortical changes during a freezing-like state in humansNeuroImage. 2018;179:313-325. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.06.013

  5. Wendt J, Löw A, Weymar M, Lotze M, Hamm AO. Active avoidance and attentive freezing in the face of approaching threat. NeuroImage. 2017;158:196-204. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.06.054