A stress response describes how someone reacts to a stressor, which can be an actual or perceived threat. “Under stress, your executive functioning—your logical abilities—is reduced, because your sympathetic nervous system is activated," says psychotherapist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. So, in the aforementioned example, if you perceived the work meeting to be an unsafe place following what your coworker said, the way you respond might be a matter of instinct rather than one of measured thought.
Consider an activated sympathetic nervous system as your survival instincts kicked into high gear. When you're in survival mode (whether that's running from a tiger or feeling attacked in that work meeting—two situations between which your sympathetic nervous system may not be able to differentiate), your ability to exert control over how you feel and respond is compromised, so you may instinctually defer to one of the stress responses, says Dr. Daramus.
Knowing what the different stress responses are, then, might help you identify your own style of facing threats or stressors—which may, in turn, enable you to make tweaks in the moment as necessary. Even though we can’t control the frequency of stressors‚ or even what the stressors are, we can work to control our stress responses in certain situations—especially with a dash of self-awareness and introspection.
“When you understand that we're wired a certain way, it’s easier to accept that that’s your natural inclination—and that you shouldn't feel defeated by it,” says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a New York City-based neuropsychologist and director of therapy practice Comprehend the Mind. “You can just say, ‘Okay, I can honor who I am as a person, but what can I do to make this response style more effective or more amenable to my life?”
Keep reading for a full breakdown of the main four stress responses, as well as how people might develop them, according to Dr. Hafeez and Dr. Daramus.
The 4 stress responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn
According to Dr. Daramus, "fight" is “an aggressive response that moves toward the challenge.” It might come out in a literal sense—fighting in a verbal or physical way. It also might mean getting angry, competitive, or irritable when faced with a stressor; essentially, there is an oppositional relationships between the stressor and your reaction.
Let's say someone bumps you at a bar; a fight stress response might look like approaching that person and getting into a physical altercation. It could also mean having words with them, having a generally angry reaction, or challenging them in some way, says Dr. Daramus.
Also commonly referred to as “flee,” Dr. Daramus says this stress response is to avoid the threat and essentially means “leaving a situation when it’s not working for you—in whatever way is available to you… You sense a threat of some kind and just want to get away from it.”
In a literal sense, this stress response means running away if you're being chased by something or someone dangerous. But, there are also other, less on-the-nose applications of the flight stress response. “Let’s say you have a really difficult job, and your first instinct is to quit and go get a new job,” Dr. Daramus says. In this case, the flight response is activated due to the perceived threat that is the stress of your job.
If you can’t physically remove yourself from the situation, Dr. Daramus adds it’s also possible for a flight response to take the form of daydreaming to at least take your mind off it.
“The freeze response is sort of being paralyzed, not being able to move,” says Dr. Hafeez. “It is inaction to dispel the threat.”
Folks who experience the freeze response neither fight nor run away, says Dr. Daramus. Rather, their goal is to not draw attention to themselves, she adds: “In a less dangerous situation, like work conflict, this might be not speaking up in a meeting—or taking a trip to the bathroom or taking the day off so you don't have to deal with it.” Essentially, freezing is an urge to hide from the problem.
“Fawning is when you try to make yourself agreeable to the threat,” says Dr. Daramus, adding that the fawn response is more learned and less biological than the preceding three stress responses. “You try to get the threat on your side.” In an effort to reduce the perceived threat level through a fawning stress response, you might flatter someone in order to deflect. You might also take the blame, even though it’s not completely (or at all) your fault.
Even still, it's possible to over-explain your trauma if you fall into the fawn stress response. For instance, you might feel like someone’s just not seeing where you’re coming from. If that’s the case, then you’d explain to them what you’ve been through in an attempt to people-please and avoid confrontation.
How do we develop stress responses—and then work to change them?
Someone’s natural anxiety levels can come into play in terms of determining stress responses. “Someone with high anxiety might be prone to a flight or freeze response, while someone with lower anxiety might lean toward a fight response,” says Dr. Daramus. But, there is some wiggle room as far as amending those responses, since both nature and nurture are at play in determining them.
“Some of it is familiarity, meaning that you might have had self-defense classes as a kid, so you might make a fight response more common,” says Dr. Daramus. If, on the other hand, you were taught to “go to your room” when there was a heated conversation at home, you might be conditioned to a flight response, because that’s what you were taught in an emergency.
Furthermore, just because you have a fight response in one situation doesn’t mean that you'll have the same response across the board. “Some people do things in different situations, and a lot of it can be reflected by how competent you feel in that situation,” says Dr. Daramus. While someone who feels confident to defend themselves might choose the fight response, “if a person doesn't feel particularly powerful or competent in that situation, they might choose an unconscious flight response,” she adds.
But, again, mindful awareness of your instincts can grant you the power to take control of them and improve the health of many relationships in your life. “For every scenario, you have a response style—and uncovering that pattern can be so critical to your well-being and your relationships,” says Dr. Hafeez, who suggests keeping a diary where you write down your stress responses to certain behaviors.
From there, ask yourself questions like: Were you happy with the outcome? How would you change that style? What would you do differently if you were in that same situation again? This way, the next time you notice one of your stress responses activating, you can consider how you might change your behavior so that you are happy with it long-term.
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