The Five F's of Stress

Many people refer to the stress response as 'fight or flight', but did you know that there are more options than just these two?

Fight or flight were the two basic options required by our ancestors when faced with a hungry tiger or another immediate threat. You can’t deal with this kind of situation by rationalising, planning or making decisions, you just have to react.

The best actions are to run faster than the tiger and escape (flight), or to defend yourself and get a new tiger-skin coat (fight). However, these don’t cover every eventuality and the stress response does allow for other options. These are freeze, faint and fidget.

The 'freeze' response to stress

If you are a prey animal and your most prolific predator hunts by sight and movement, 'freeze' is the best way to remain unnoticed, and uneaten! Of course, in some situations, it can be counter-productive; think 'rabbit in the headlights'. Cars are not like predators, (they tend to just keep coming) but the freeze strategy is so successful in the situation for which it was designed that the rabbit has become 'hard-wired' and can’t do anything else. In people, the freeze response tends to kick in if neither flight nor fight seem to offer any hope of survival, e.g. during muggings, rapes or car accidents. A less extreme example would be when faced with a room full of people expecting us to give a presentation. When we freeze we feel glued to the spot and don’t seem capable of thought, speech or movement. We may dissociate from what's going on so we no longer experience anxiety, pain or fear. The whole situation feels unreal, and we may not have any conscious memories of it afterwards. Reducing our stress will help to release the lock, and allow us to move and think naturally again.

The 'faint' response to stress

This tends to be the rarest of the stress responses, because overall it’s probably the least useful in terms of survival. It has the same benefits as freeze, but comes with a big built-in problem. With freeze, if things change and a chance for escape presents itself, we can unfreeze and then run or fight back. Fainting doesn't offer that option.

However, fainting does have some advantages if we are badly injured; our blood pressure drops dramatically, we bleed more slowly and we have more chance of being rescued before our injuries are fatal. We often see the faint response in clients with phobias of blood or needles but rarely in other phobias, which tends to support this idea. Fainting under stress is more common in people who tend to faint at other times too, but reducing their stress will generally help them to faint less often.

The 'fidget' response to stress

This one is sometimes also called 'fooling around'. Fidgeting is a displacement activity; something we do when are flooded with energy from the stress response but don’t have an outlet for it. For example, many animals show side-to-side or back-and-forth movements if the urges to fight and to run away are evenly balanced. In people under stress, common displacement activities are pacing, thumb twiddling, foot tapping, hair twiddling, nail biting and so on.

Displacement can also be a way of releasing frustration if we are prevented from doing something we are highly motivated to do: for example if you are held up by traffic when driving to an important meeting you may begin to tap on the wheel, smoke or fiddle with the radio. Some human displacement activities are designed to turn away or avoid strong feelings, such as joking about a very serious situation.

In my view, freezing, fainting and fidgeting are secondary stress responses. They tend to be something to do until the opportunity arises to run away or fight back. But being aware of them may still help you to understand some of the things you do when you’re under stress, and some of the benefits you'll gain by dealing with it.


Author: is a professional stress management coach, specialising in working with individuals and smaller employers to minimise stress and maximise feeling in control.
Debbie is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook both of which are available from Amazon.
Find out more about Debbie's services on  or phone 01977 678593