Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Do You Fight, Take Flight, or Freeze?

Especially if you’re a woman, the answer is perhaps none of the above.

Key points

  • “Fight or flight” theory was developed from research on men.
  • Both women and men can react to stress in additional ways.
  • Some people may choose to "tend and befriend" instead.
Source: Victoria/Pixabay

We’ve all heard about the fight-or-flight response. Then, it was fight, flight, or freeze. Now it’s fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Here’s what it means.

When people mention fight-or-flight as the way we react to stress or threats, essential factors are often ignored. Namely, the original fight-or-flight research was done by Walter Cannon in 1932 and earlier. His research subjects were men (and lab animals). That wasn’t uncommon—women were generally excluded from medical research until recently and sometimes still are due to the vagaries of reproductive cycling. But the fact remains that fight-or-flight left out women and how they may be different.

That doesn’t mean there is one stress response for men and a new one for women. Behavior—including fighting or fleeing…or freezing or fawning—is not binary, male or female (gender itself is not binary). Yet biological and physiological processes (utilizing the binary for discussion purposes here) in men and women are different, including our responses to stress.

In 2000, Shelley Taylor, a UCLA psychologist, came out with a theory of stress response more prevalent in women called “tend and befriend” (thus, the “fawn” in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn). Taylor’s theory, although sometimes critiqued for being dualistic, is still highly significant in expanding our idea of how women (and men) reflexively—or mindfully—choose to respond to stress.

What does this mean in humans?

People have always lived in groups, and Taylor purported we might have more stress response options than animals. If fight, flight, or freeze comprised our only stress response, for instance, evolutionary humans would have been too vulnerable in ancient times. If humans fought predators, they could have left children and infants open to attack. If they fled, those same youth could fatally slow them down. And if they froze—well, have you ever tried to encourage an infant or toddler to freeze?

Thus, something about the social groups humans rely on, Taylor surmised, could offer additional responses to stress. And in fact, research supports her tend or befriend theory, especially (but not only) for women. Humans do indeed have social responses to stress: They tend to others (e.g., offspring or the vulnerable) and/or befriend or affiliate or “be with” safe and known humans.

Women, who still make up the majority of those who give birth, serve as primary caregivers, and generally have more social connections, may find that tending and befriending resonates more with their lived experience.

Tend or befriend doesn’t replace fight, flight, or freeze. It simply offers additional options to think about when stressed. Tend and befriend is supported by different hormones (oxytocin, an affiliative hormone, and opioids) than fight, flight, or freeze (catecholamines, or stress hormones, such as cortisol).

Lotta Gessner/Pixabay
Source: Lotta Gessner/Pixabay

How can you put this to work?

Just having additional options in mind when you’re stressed may decrease tension. Understanding greater social affiliation (befriending) may help people live longer, or knowing you might feel better walking away from a fight and texting a friend is all good.

Choose social contact that’s positive for you. Taylor reports that knowing one has social contacts—people who care about you even if you choose not to access them—is a healthy stress response. When your personal stress signal (and we all have one) goes off, reach out, tend, or befriend. Even if you choose to be alone, you could list all those folks you might call when you like. Your nervous system will thank you for it.

More from Diane N Solomon Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today