The Four Stages of Fear


In the throes of intense fear, we suddenly find ourselves operating in a different and unexpected way. The psychological tools that we normally use to navigate the world­reasoning and planning before we act­get progressively shut down. In the grip of the brain’s subconscious fear centers, we behave in ways that to our rational mind seem nonsensical or worse. We might respond automatically, with preprogrammed motor routines, or simply melt down. We lose control.

In this unfamiliar realm, it can seem like we’re in the grip of utter chaos. But although the preconscious fear centers of the brain are not capable of deliberation and reason, they do have their own logic, a simplified suite of responses keyed to the nature of the threat at hand. There is a structure to panic.

When the danger is far away, or at least not immediately imminent, the instinct is to freeze. When danger is approaching, the impulse is to run away. When escape is impossible, the response is to fight back. And when struggling is futile, the animal will become immobilized in the grip of fright. Although it doesn’t slide quite as smoothly off the tongue, a more accurate description than “fight or flight” would be “fight, freeze, flight, or fright”­or, for short, “the four fs.”

I’m in the middle of reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. He writes that “fight or flight” is actually “fight, flight, posture, or submit.”

Posted on June 4, 2010 at 3:30 PM27 Comments


kangaroo June 4, 2010 6:41 PM

Well, my old psych professor always called it the four fs of animal motivation: fight, flight, food and sex.

evil mind June 4, 2010 7:05 PM

Those weren’t the “four F’s” I learned as a young teen. 🙂 (kangaroo’s hint was the third, in order.)

Johann Gevers June 5, 2010 12:07 AM

You might also enjoy reading Peter Levine’s work on how to recover resilience after traumatic experiences. Levine developed “Somatic Experiencing” as a method for helping people recover from PTSD. The field of trauma resolution has been rapidly progressing in the last few years. Very useful antidote to the fear-mongering about “terrorism” or “nature as killer” (tsunamis, hurricanes, …), various global crises, etc. See

Davi Ottenheimer June 5, 2010 2:36 AM

The story reads more like walk, run, faint, fight or flight. What if we turn the theory around and apply it to the lion? The story ends with it standing in fear, or perhaps shock, but it does not faint or get to the fight or flight.

Dave Walker June 5, 2010 2:37 AM

I have, only once, been stopped at a road checkpoint (I was driving, on my own and in a car with non-native registration) and had an AK47 levelled at my head, at a range of a few feet, by a soldier who was clearly nervous.

I gather there had been some kind of incident, a little while before I arrived.

Anyway, I found myself getting very calm – in the manner of “if this is it, this is it” – and the main thought which went through my head was “damn, I wish I didn’t know quite enough about guns, to recognise that his change lever is set to full auto”.

That’s the honest truth, strange though it might seem.

Moderator June 5, 2010 12:30 PM

I’ve removed the religion debate because this is not the place for it. “Christian,” don’t derail threads on this blog. Everyone else: when something like that is posted, please don’t take the bait.

Leisureguy June 5, 2010 2:16 PM

That’s a fascinating book. I was particularly struck by his finding that crew-operated weapons (sniper+spotter, machine-gun crews, etc.) tend to go for the kill more than individually-operated weapons (rifle).

BF Skinner June 5, 2010 7:41 PM

Phase 1 – Hey what’s this? Can I shag or eat it it?
Phase 2 – Uh no. And it is now very very mad.
Phase 3 – Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh
Phase 4 – Feets do your stuff
Phase 5 – Whew!
Phase 6 – Hey what’s this?

Clive Robinson June 6, 2010 1:51 AM

@ BF Skinner,

Hmm that life model working for you?

Where’s the romance 😉

On a more serious note the basic model as proposed depends on the base state the person is in at the time the “insult” to their senses occurs.

Thus if already in a state of hightend awarness the response will be different than if say eating or drinking or asleep.

Also nobody has mentiond the old “hierarchie of needs” and how there are also gender and age bias on the process.

Further as noted above about “team kills” there is a herd instinct which tends to be lowest common denominator. That is if just one creature starts to run then the others almost automaticaly follow unless there is an overriding reason not to as in a mother protecting her young.

However don’t assume that “faint” is not a valid defence mechanism. Look up “fainting goats”. Some preditors will leave dead animals alone thus fainting makes the animal appear to be dead to the preditor and thus of no interest where as fleeing causes a chase and almost certain predation.

Thus the actual order and mechanism of the responses has a hereditary component that evolution has built into it in response to a particular environment.

Clive Robinson June 6, 2010 2:20 AM

@ Kangaroo,

“Well, my old psych professor always called it the four fs of animal motivation: fight, flight, food and sex”

What is it about the education profession?

When I was at school we had “the three R’s” of reading writing and arithmetic…

No wonder kids cann’t spell…

BF Skinner June 6, 2010 2:47 PM

@Clive “Hmm that life model working for you?”
Before my brain wrangler broke up with me she said I should develop parameters and a genuine support system. And to go for a walk every now and then.

Ouch! Stoves hot.
I wonder if it’s still hot?
Ouch! Stoves hot.
I wonder if it’s still hot?
Ouch! Stoves hot.
I wonder if it’s still hot?
Ouch! Stoves hot.
I wonder if it’s still hot?
Ouch! Stoves hot.

Corbie Phillips June 6, 2010 3:18 PM

The motivational Four F’s (which only describe base-of-hierachy needs and thus are not all-encompassing and best describe animal behavior) are UNRELATED to the Fight or Flight response, which only happens to also have F’s in it. Steven Pinker has said that the Fight or Flight response would be better characterized as a generalized immediate action response system. I think Grossman’s Fight/Flight/Posture/Submit expansion is based on game theory explanations of animal behavior where posturing can allow animals to avoid conflict if the outcome is obvious, something soldiers in a battle would have a hard time doing.

G Stradling June 7, 2010 4:20 AM

“something soldiers in a battle would have a hard time doing”

true in a battle, but if we want to study fight / flight behaviour in other arenas (such as in night clubs etc) where there are fewer participants then you can witness all of Grossman’s reactions.

The strange thing is an individual may pass through the different reactions in a very short time or even stranger presented with a similar situation several times may react in different ways. It’s one of things I’ve often chatted over with friends who are fellow martial artists and/or bouncers.

There was a classical case several years ago in a martial arts mag of a very qualified martial artist, who when in a park with his wife and kid, opted to just give some knife wielding thugs his wallet rather then fight. Afterwards he questioned all the years of training he had done to then ‘fail’ in practice (in his eyes). You can imagine the debate as to whether people (and the gent concerned) felt he did the right thing.

Personally I think he probably made the right call and would have acted differently on his own compared to having wife and baby with him.

Craig June 7, 2010 2:26 PM

Its interesting, and sure most people have experienced the sensation of time almost stopping when faced with a life threatening situation?

When your senses seem to be in overdrive, and you seem to have minutes to make a decision when it is only a split second.

And then another time you may end up being hurt or injured, and time just flows as normal, its interesting how the brain must assess the situation/danger at hand?

David Thornley June 7, 2010 3:53 PM

@Craig: I wonder how much of that is experience at the time and how much is in retrospect. We don’t get accurate reports on psychological state and cognition from subjects in grave and imminent danger, and the recollections are going to be distorted.

DCFusor June 7, 2010 6:49 PM

Interesting idea-set, and certainly seems to apply to most people who kind of fall apart at the unexpected, perhaps because they are already nearly there.

I don’t claim to understand this, or why, but personally, I’ve always been the go-to guy in any serious emergency — even when it’s me who is seriously hurt or in imminent danger. I have had to insert my own IV when half my head was taken off — the medics were too busy hurling and too nervous to overcome it. Car crashes — I’m giving first aid even if I’m the one hurt the worst (not usually, as I’m usually paying attention, and that matters a lot). I’m not trying to boast here, and in fact the consequences later are fairly horrible — the horror isn’t suppressed, merely delayed and even amplified (like interest on a payday loan).

I just automatically go into action — it’s not really conscious process, and fix what’s most immediately broken quickly and surely. Doubt doesn’t enter my mind — I don’t worry if the guy I save is going to sue me, whether to get involved, any of that, which I normally would think about. When it’s obviously crucial, something else just kicks in.

Wish I could do that when there was no emergency! Prevention is better than cure, after all. But nope, most of the time, I’m just a pretty normal procrastinating, lazy kinda guy — I tend to work smart vs hard, but not always.

The big question is: Am I completely alone in this?
Is there anybody else out there who has this “mode” when the chips are really down? Or does everyone else just flip to fight or flight? I do get the adrenaline — I’ve tossed 600 lb motorcycles across a lane of road (and I weigh 120 lb) and really paid for that — the next day, in serious pain. But at the time it was light as a feather, and obviously the right thing to do (it was on fire and on my wife at the time).

So? Is this universal, or what? A cop out to excuse bad behavior when it matters most by nearly everyone? To me, that’s the real question.

Clive Robinson June 8, 2010 3:12 AM

@ Doug (DCFusor),

“The big question is: Am I completely alone in this Is there anybody else out there who has this”mode” when the chips are really down?”

I used to be like that from my teens it tends to go with a particular mind set (high function autistic or Aspergers) and is often found in the technicaly minded fundemental problem solvers such as design engineers.

Unfortunatly like courage it behaves like a “bank account” and you need to not overdraw or you pay penalties big time.

With sufficient “insults” on the system without enough time in between you can get stuck in the red due to “hypervigilism”. It is part of PTSD and of very recent times is becoming more recognised.

Part of the problem in modern society is the inability to “get time” to get properly back in the black due to the vastly increased (unwarented) stresses put on us by work and society.

Part of this is the lack of “use your hands” type jobs that used to be so plentifull prior to the 1970’s. Where you could do a worthwhile job earn an income and work at a pace that alows you to pujt yourself back in the black sufficiently far that you can stay there.

Basically modern society spins so fast and the gap between minimum wage and high stress jobs so great that once you let go you get flung off and cann’t in most circumstances get back on…

Oh and of course there are a group of Proffessional Torturers who’s sole job is to incentivize the work force, they may not carry whips because “whips are for those that cann’t get in your head”…

GreenSquirrel June 8, 2010 6:24 AM

@ Craig at June 7, 2010 2:26 PM

“Its interesting, and sure most people have experienced the sensation of time almost stopping when faced with a life threatening situation?

When your senses seem to be in overdrive, and you seem to have minutes to make a decision when it is only a split second.”

This is discussed, at some length, in a book called Blink by Malcom Gladwell (*). Basically, Gladwell suggests this time dilation effect is caused by our senses tunneling focus. Rather than process a huge amount of information about what goes on around us, we focus on tiny details about a small area which creates the mental effect of there being a lot of time.

While I sort of agree with this, I have a lot of reservations. I agree that in high intensity stress situations time can seem to slow down, but (as Gladwell notes) this is combined with a massive loss of situational awarenss (**). Also, it is rarely (In my experience at least) accompanied by an equivalent ability to take actions in that limited time frame. It seems to me we are just able to make some more abstract thought about what is going on rather than do anything.

For example a young soldier on street patrol in NI in the 80s. Patrol comes under fire from an alley way. Time appears to stand still, but all this means is soldier is able to wonder about what is going on, rather than have extra time to react. During the post-action, I spoke to the RUC officers who had been with us, and they also described time slowing down, but it wasnt enough for one of them to avoid getting hit.

Part of me feels that this time dilation effect is an artifact of how we rationalise an incident after it has happened. When the stressful situation has ended and we try to work out what went on, we have a lot more information available and often more detail gives a feeling of more time. In a previous job, I interviewed people after traumatic incidents and quite often they could give extensive detail about bizarrely trivial things (such as a gunman having gloves on) but were unable to give a broader picture (hair colour).

This leads me on to my next question / point:

@ Dave Walker at June 5, 2010 2:37 AM

I dont find it strange at all. I am curious though – you can remember the make of the weapon system and the position of the change lever, but can you remember the soldier’s face?

As I said before, most interviews / debriefs I have conducted imply that people are very good at remembering some specific details (and its nearly always around the weapon system being pointed at them) but few, even supposedly specially trained professionals, can draw on the bigger picture.

* ISBN 0-316-01066-9 if you want to read it in full or there is a Wiki Page at

** not always a good thing. One of Gladwell’s examples is cops who shoot an innocent person when their situational awareness b0rks.

pcleddy June 8, 2010 4:16 PM

this is also nothing new. but i like that you brought up the topic. now where is the ACTUAL research? in the book? or just more pondtificazhun?

DCFusor June 9, 2010 11:39 AM

Thanks for the kind remarks, and indeed, experience bears them out. It’s like a particularly bad bank account or credit account — take some out, and you pay more back in to get to level again, at a fairly horrible interest rate. Kind of like most psychoactive drugs in a way. A bad deal, except for those I’ve saved, I guess. I’ve been lucky to not be sued in some instances, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time to pull someone with a broken back from a burning car, say, even without all the “correct” tools, merely being as careful as possible while being swift about it.

And you guessed right, before I graduated to “fusion scientist” I spent some decades as a design engineer and general problem solver (consultant).
Before that, as a troubleshooting technician, so problem solving has been a big part of my life. Try homesteading as I have sometime for a real challenge! I got sick of the corporate world and bought some plain old land in the boonies — lived in a tent, and now have a campus of buildings and a nice debt free lifestyle, but boy — talk about hard work and a great deal of learning in practical engineering — made my earlier work with “stuff in orbit and under the ice” seem trivial. Somehow that backup generator never seems to fail in nice weather when the parts stores are open, the water pipes never freeze unless everything else has already, and so forth.

I find as with most other things, capacity decreases with age. I used to be able to be “on” pretty much on demand in my earlier decades, which was useful in my hobby as a musician (which did pay a mortgage off, so not quite a hobby). And of course in the constant emergency world of solving big problems yesterday for $Megacorp du jour and getting that time to market thing happening.

As I age, I find myself less capable of doing all this — not that I can’t do it once, but the recovery time is longer, more painful, and I don’t quite do it as well as before. Luckily I don’t really court emergencies — I’m not a junkie for them at all, but in a long life, stuff happens, and perhaps good luck and often good outcomes have made me sometimes take chances others would not — which, since they are chances, means they don’t all turn out as well as hoped. So I guess that kind of keeps my hand in, so to speak.

alreadyonthelist June 11, 2010 7:31 AM

Grossman’s book looks interesting. It would perhaps help others to understand a small part of the complex picture that our returning vets must deal with.

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