The Missing "F" Word in Fear Responses
by Emily Eldredge and Donna Volpitta
If someone asked you, “What are the 3 fear responses?”, what would be your answer? Fight, Flight, and Freeze, of course.
Walter Cannon first coined the term “fight-or-flight” in his 1915 book Bodily Changes in Pain, Hunger, Fear and Rage, in which he identified the release of hormones to prepare to attack or flee from a predator. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, “Freeze” was added, creating the triumvirate we know so well today.
Fight (Cannon, 1915): Confronting the perceived threat
Flight (Cannon, 1915): Fleeing the perceived threat
Freeze (Barlow, 2002): Unable to move, playing dead, hypervigilance
For example, someone cuts you off in traffic, and you lay on your horn (Fight). A car comes barreling toward you, and you jump out of the way (Flight). You get up to give a speech, and suddenly, you can’t remember what you were going to say (Freeze). Like most animals, humans are wired to immediately respond to threat. We don’t need to think - we are programmed to just act.
If someone asked you to name additional “F” responses, what would come to mind? Perhaps Flood, Fatigue, Flop, Fawn, Fright, Faint, Feign, and/or Friend? Over the past few decades, these additions have joined the list of stress responses. Several of them emerged as a result of practitioners working with victims of trauma to explain both immediate reactions and long-term coping strategies.
Fawn (Walker, 2003): to act submissive; to flatter and please someone
Fright (Bracha, 2004): tonic immobility
Faint (Bracha, 2004): fainting following the sight of a syringe, blood, or following a trivial skin injury
Feign (Malchiodi, 2021): a purposeful action taken in order to escape danger and defuse threat
Flop: muscles become loose and body goes floppy; the mind can also shut down to protect itself
Flood (Reisinger, 2017): Being flooded with emotions in response to a threat
Fatigue (Reisinger, 2017): Feeling tired and/or sleeping in response to a threat
Friend: calling someone for help and/or 'befriending' the person who is dangerous, for example by placating, negotiating, bribing or pleading with them
When it comes to fear responses, this list certainly seems comprehensive and complete. However, we propose that there is a glaring omission from the current literature - one that is particularly important in understanding fear and trauma.
Our realization came about one day as we were on a Zoom call together, discussing how to combine our respective emotional education models. Emily’s The ChangeLight System™ is based on her parts-work modality, while Donna’s The Resilience Formula is based on brain science.
Donna mentioned the Fight, Flight, and Freeze responses to threat, and Emily expressed her frustration with these, saying that they don’t fully represent what she has discovered in her own work. She explained that, in reaction to fear or threat, 3 types of inner parts arise. She calls these types Defenders, Controllers, and Woundeds. When it comes to the 3 “F”s of fear, Fight represents a Defender reaction, while Flight and Freeze represent a Wounded reaction. However, none of these F-words represent a Controller reaction - the impulse to impose internal and/or external control.
As humans, we like to feel like we have some semblance of control. When we lack control, our brains are more likely to be alert to threats. They are wired that way in order to protect us.
Locus of control has long been recognized as an essential psychological concept.
Belief in one's ability to exert control over the environment and to produce desired results is essential for an individual's wellbeing. It has repeatedly been argued that perception of control is not only desirable, but is also probably a psychological and biological necessity. (Leotti, L.A., Iyengar, S.S., Ochsner, K.N. (2010, Sept 02). Born to Choose: The origins and value of the need for control. Trends in Cognitive Psychology. www.doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2010.08.001)
Many have also recognized the impulse to control as a fear and trauma response. Robyn Brickel explains in her article, “Control As a Trauma Response: Knowing You Were Powerless Helps You Heal”
Many trauma survivors try to feel “in control” by believing they could have done something to prevent trauma. So they carefully control their lives now to prevent another instance of abuse or danger. They think: I’ll never let something like that happen again!
Jamie Cannon, MS LPC explains in her article, “How Chronic Trauma Can Make a Person Controlling”
One of the most crucial effects of experiencing chronic powerlessness is an overwhelming urge to exert control at every turn. In some ways, this is a self-protective measure to avoid being further traumatized—burn the bridge yourself so at least you can see it coming, so to speak.
For victims of ongoing exposure to trauma, control becomes a safety benchmark that allows them breathing room. By exerting control over even the smallest details of their environment, they are effectively creating a safe space in which outcomes become more predictable.
The impulse to control is borne of fear - typically by experiences that cause us to feel powerless and out of control. In order to calm or negate these feelings, parts of us try to re-establish a sense of power and control internally and/or externally. These inner parts are what Emily calls “Controllers”.
As Emily shared her frustration with the 3 “F”s, Donna immediately agreed, saying that she had felt the very same for a long time, too. Recognizing the need for an “F” word that captures this impulse to control, she quickly found one: “Force”.
Force (Eldredge and Volpitta, 2022): acting to impose control
For example, a beloved mother lays dying in the hospital, and each of her children has their own reaction to the fear and pain of the moment. One sits crying by her bedside, another throws himself into work to avoid feeling grief, and another goes into “control freak” mode, hyper-managing the hospital staff and gatekeeping anyone who wants to visit her mother. This “control freak” response is an example of Force - her response to feeling scared and out of control in the face of her mother’s impending death. Rather than being fully present with and accepting of what is, she is dealing (or not dealing) with her own pain by trying to force people and circumstances to be a certain way.
The day the World Trade Center Towers collapsed in 2001, Emily witnessed another example of Force. Her boss was scheduled to attend a luncheon in one of the towers the week after. Rather than accept that the organizers were undoubtedly focused on more pressing matters, she frantically insisted that Emily call them to find out where and when the luncheon would take place instead. As predicted, the organizers replied that the luncheon had been canceled and that they didn’t have any idea when it would be rescheduled. The boss was trying desperately to exert a sense of predictability and control in reaction to a traumatic event that was completely beyond her control.
The impulse to control one’s self or one’s environment can be a chronic reaction as well. Perfectionism and authoritarianism are examples of chronically controlling behaviors. Many mental health disorders, such as Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, present with symptoms that involve the extreme need to control one’s self, others, or one’s environment.
The tricky thing about Force - and perhaps one of the reasons why it has been overlooked for so long - is that it isn’t always recognizable as a reaction to fear and trauma. When someone appears to be “taking charge”, “in control”, or “keeping it all together”, they might come across as devoid of fear. Sadly, this can lead to a lack of recognition and, thus, a lack of appropriate response by caregivers and mental health professionals. They might not see that the person’s calm exterior, compulsively completed to-do list, or authoritarian tendencies are in fact rooted in fearful or traumatic experiences they’ve had in their lives.
Therefore, we propose that “Force” be added to the compendium of “F” reactions. With “Force” on the list, people exhibiting these types of behaviors are less likely to get overlooked and more likely to get the attention and care they need.
We hope you find this discovery helpful, and we welcome your thoughts and reflections. We also hope that, going forward, you will include “Force” in your discussions of the “F”s.