Simple Explainer

The 4F Response is a model of human stress responses put forward by Pete Walker in From Surviving to Thriving. Most people are familiar with the idea of the ‘fight or flight’ response, whereby organisms respond to threatening situations by either fighting or running away.

To #Fight and #Flight, 4F adds #Freeze and #Fawn. They are inbuilt neurological responses that are activated when a basic need is not met. That might be the need for safety, sustenance, love, or anything else that is necessary for survival.

In the context of CPTSD, Pete Walker focuses on 4F responses in children, the reasons they are triggered, and the effects of being in a 4F response for an extended period of time. An individual will tend to rely on one or two out of the four, and many symptoms of CPTSD are rooted in the stress responses to which one gravitates.

Short Video Simple Explainer

Long Video Simple Explainer

Details on fight, flight, freeze and fawn are given below.


  • Responding to a trigger with aggression
  • How to recognise a fight response:
  • Tight jaw or grinding of the teeth
  • Urge to punch someone or something
  • Feeling intense anger or killing someone, even yourself
  • Desire to stomp or kick
  • Crying
  • Glaring at people, conserving angrily
  • Upset stomach, feels like knots or burning
  • Attacking the source of the danger

Fight: Written Recovery Experience

I can tell when I’m in my fight response because I can feel the cortisol dropping into my bloodstream. For most of my life whenever I felt that feeling of activation I would brace myself at the same time. Kinda like having multiple responses ready to go. Around the age of 25 I began cooking more. The urgency of getting all the ingredients ready at the perfect time, plus all the multitasking, required some cortisol and nervous system activation to improve my response time. Because it was completely voluntary and I was alone, I knew I was safe and that I didn't need to be afraid of the activation. I gently stopped the secondary bracing trauma response and it made the experience so much better.

Recently I had an issue with a gym membership. I had gone in person and cancelled two times but they charged me again. As I drove to the facility to discuss it a third time, my fight response began to activate. On top of that I had a secondary feeling of resistance and upset feelings. I remembered a friend's advice to not resist activation. I relaxed and embraced the current moment. This allowed me to be calm, while still activated enough to defend myself. When the time for conflict arrived I was able to navigate it without over or under reacting. Not only did my outside behaviour go well, but my internal experience of the situation improved greatly. LiberationGardenista


  • Responding to a trigger by fleeing/hyperactivity
  • How to recognise a flight response
  • Excessively exercising
  • Feeling fidgety or tense or trapped
  • Constantly moving legs, feet, and arms
  • Restless body that will not stop moving
  • Sensation of numbness in extremities
  • Dilated eyes, darting eyes


  • Responding to a trigger as though resistance is futile - giving up, numbing, dissociating and/or collapsing
  • How to recognise a freeze response
  • Pale skin
  • Sense of dread
  • Feeling stiff, heavy, cold, numb
  • Loud, pounding heart
  • Decreasing in heart rate
  • Sensing tolerated stress

Freeze: Written Recovery Experience

I went through a very difficult time where I couldn’t get out of bed much. I called it “collapse mode”. I feel like it fits under the freeze response. Even though I could physically perform the action, I didn’t have any motivation. My body and brain wanted to stay laying down, doing nothing. There are some voices in society who call people like me lazy and say I deserve nothing, because I’m contributing nothing. At the time I knew that something was wrong and that I was suffering from something that needed healing. Now that I’ve healed, I am extremely confident that not being motivated to get out of bed is not normal, and is something that is possible to heal from.

I've had a hard time accessing good therapists. While struggling to get out of bed, I decided to find someone who practised Somatic Experiencing (SE). The person I found advertised herself using the SE certificate she got, but when I had our appointments she insisted on using NARM and refused to do SE. I knew a little about NARM so I was cool with going that direction. We had a good first couple sessions. On about the fourth one she f*cked up majorly. I told her we couldn't continue unless she apologised and recognized her mistake. She refused accountability. I reached out to NARM and SE institutes, and both refused to have a conversation with her about what went wrong. I eventually reported her to my state's professional licence department. She was charged with practising therapy without a licence and required to pay a fee. With that caveat, I will say we had a good moment in session three where I was able to see the perspective of this part that was keeping me in freeze/collapse mode. It was helping me not kill myself and get though the hard time. The message I heard from this part is “I love you, so I did this to protect you.” Over time I was able to learn how to calm my nervous system and the part that was keeping me in bed felt safe enough to back off a bit. I now live a very healthy life with motivation and energy to do things. LiberationGardenista

I remember my first freeze response clearly. When I was 4 years old, my mother ran away to kill herself. I went to my father for comfort but he got angry with me, and I froze. I could not move or say anything, and I do not remember anything after that point. When I was 7, I went to a highly competitive school. In line with the prevailing culture of the time, children were shouted at and berated and this was considered normal and appropriate. My teachers were no different. They shouted and screamed at the fragile 7-year-old me, and I froze deeper and more permanently this time. I now had undeniable evidence that the world I had found myself in was not safe. There was also no adult that I could turn to for support to help me navigate the unsafe world. To survive I had only one tool left and that was to freeze. The phrase I came to repeat to myself hundreds of times a day was “I can’t be bothered.” I repeated this phrase to myself when I was pressured to be a person other than myself, or to do something I did not want to do. I understand now that this was a form of rebellion by telling myself that it was I who was choosing to not do what adults had asked of me. It was a way to take some power back from them. Rather than try and fail to live up to their impossible expectations, I shut down instead.

Adults berated me constantly for “not trying hard enough” or “being lazy.” Through my therapeutic work, I now realise that the freeze response helped young me survive this regular shaming. There was a guarantee that shame and abuse would be thrown at me if I said no to their demands, so by freezing and not engaging in what they asked of me, I protected myself from having to constantly compromise myself. It also allowed me to take some of my power back. As life went on, the freeze response remained. My body shut down when I tried to study, I could not take opportunities that came my way and was forced to say no to things I wanted to do because I had no ability to say yes. As is often the case, the strategies that helped us survive, when we are young, become the limitations that keep us stuck as we get older. The frozen 4 and 7-year-old boy has continued to scream his anger out through my body. This culminated in me developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS); the ultimate freeze response where I needed to sleep all day and hide away from the world.

Understanding the freeze response and how it protected me, at a young age, has been a key stage in my CPTSD recovery. It has given me self-compassion and helped me start to untangle my inner critic too. The critic who is the internalised voices of those adults who caused me to develop the freeze response in the first place. kebabking


  • Responding to a trigger by people pleasing/codependence
  • How to recognise a fawn response
  • One may use the fawn response after unsuccessfully trying to fight, flight, and freeze. The fawn response is typically prominent in people who grew up in abusive families or situations.
  • If you are an abused child with narcissistic parents, the only hope of survival would probably be agreement and helpfulness.
  • Over time, you can recognize this by realizing that regardless of how poorly a person treats you, you are more concerned with making them happy than taking care of yourself

Fawn: Written Recovery Experience

My main trauma response is fawning. Most recently I was sexually assaulted and my response was to act like nothing happened and go along with it. The next day I realised it wasn’t my fault and I texted the person to let them know how upset I was. Thankfully they apologised, but even if they hadn’t, I know that it wasn’t my fault and it was wrong. Instead of feeling upset at myself for fawning, I cultivate a feeling of safety. I’m safe enough to stop and get mad at them (if I want to) and I can build boundaries based on the negative experiences. LiberationGardenista


Originally the model was known as fight-or-flight Freeze was eventually added Fawn was added by Pete Walker and is the most recent The model has not been widely disputed and has a lot of support

Links for further (more detailed) reading:



https://www.simplypsychology.org/fight-flight-freeze-fawn.html (includes infographic of bodily reactions to trauma responses)

Action box

Evaluate which of the responses might be the one you rely on the most https://www.psychmechanics.com/trauma-response-quiz/