FIGHT, FLIGHT, FAWN, OR FREEZE: the highly specific ways in which authors' stress responses weaken their books--and how to mop up yours on the page
Hand me a draft manuscript: within minutes, I can generally tell you exactly how the author responds to acute stress. The signs manifest on the page in consistent, predictable, unfortunate ways.
As all of us have lived through the past six years, I’m going to go ahead and assume we’re all familiar with the felt experience of acute stress.
But just in case, let’s review.
When stress and trauma trigger the human nervous system, adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. Pupils dilate; muscles tense; cheeks flush or drain; heart rates increase. As blood vacates the extremities, an awful pricking sensation starts in the hands and feet. Then at last comes the stress response, otherwise known as Fight or Flight.
(NB before I go further that my advanced degree is in English literature, not psychology, and unlike Dr. Laura, I will actually admit that this makes me unqualified to dispense psychological advice. I very well might get some scientific facts wrong in this post; its point is not to teach you about the nervous system but to get you thinking about how yours might be present in your writing.
If you want to explore the biological part of this in more detail, ASK AN EXPERT, PLEASE—NOT ME.)
Like individual pieces of music, individual stress responses are unique in their particulars but composed from common notes: fight, flight, fawn, and freeze.
This will not be news to you if you’ve been in therapy, entered recovery, or ever waded through the #therapy content on Tiktok or Instagram.
Just in case this is all new information, though, let’s go over what the different archetypal stress responses look like in practice:
Fight: rebutting; yelling; projecting; hurling accusations; kicking and screaming; mentally or physically hurting whatever person or animal triggered the response
Flight: jumping out of the way; defenestrating from the building; quitting the job; ghosting; throwing the phone across the room; swiftly abandoning a difficult conversation or relationship
Fawn: needlessly apologizing; reacting to conflict with humor, often self-deprecating; validating, flattering, nurturing, empathizing with, obsessing over, and/or clinging to the person who triggered the response; telling people who stress you out whatever you think they want to hear
Freeze: forgetting your lines; forgetting how to read a teleprompter; forgetting how human language is supposed to work; stammering; dissociating; procrastinating; hiding
Every human being experiences some combination of these stress responses at least occasionally.
Which we experience is beyond our control, and none is inherently “better” than the others.1
If extreme and unchecked, each could lead to unfortunate life developments. On the other hand, when they are managed with self-awareness and self-compassion, each becomes a useful tool for self-understanding and improvement.
Our stress responses protect us from legitimate danger; they also alert us to the presence and location of unhealed wounds. If triggered all the time, they might do significant damage to the body, but even that has an upside: the resulting chronic fatigue, pain, and immunosuppression can and often do force one’s hand in the matter of making difficult, systemic, badly-needed life changes where possible.
It’s never a good idea to suppress our fight-or-flight impulses entirely.
This is more of a nutmeg scenario. Nutmeg is deliciously life-enhancing when savored sparingly and with self-awareness. When horked mindlessly in quantity, however, it's seizure-inducing and might kill you.2 Ditto your fight or flight instinct.
If you suspect that obeying this instinct in a given scenario will make you safer or more serene—hell, even if you’re reasonably sure that in a worst-case scenario it will do nothing—by all means do so. At the same time, be vigilant and candid with yourself when you suspect it will tempt you toward self-abuse—or abusing other people.
How do I avoid abusing others when I’m activated?
This is simple. Don’t shame or blame other adults when a mature, collaborative conversation would do. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t hit or hurt people. Don’t throw tantrums in a terroristic attempt to receive soothing attention—you are not a baby.
How do I avoid abusing myself?
This one’s harder. Stress responses can erode the strongest personal boundaries and obliterate shaky ones, resulting in self-abuse and abandonment. And it can be very hard for the self-abuser to know what is going on.
People in fight-or-flight mode often pass or ghost on opportunities they very much want; agree to demands they don’t like; ignore their own feelings and needs; and—oh yeah—write book manuscripts far less brilliant or affecting than they would be if only their authors practiced self-awareness and self-compassion.
This last thing is my focus today. Writing can be a stressful undertaking, even when it’s one’s lifelong dream. Things get especially stressful when one feels vulnerable — worried what others might think of their work, for instance, or tender about the disclosures contained therein.
If you’d like to learn more about the other ways self-abandonment might be interfering with your life, then—::jazz hands:: it’s therapy time, baby. Because you’re only going to hear about writing craft from me.
When authors’ nervous systems get activated during the writing process, the quality of their writing suffers in specific and predictable ways.
Hand me a draft manuscript, and I bet I could tell you within minutes whether the author’s stress response was fight, flight, fawn, freeze, or some combination. This would be my signature party trick if it were not so hideously inappropriate and invasive. The ways these things show up in writing are just that consistent and predictable.
Lest I sound like a judgmental ass here, my own stress responses absolutely weaken my writing. I’m a fawner and a freezer, both of which can be ridiculously obvious in the manner and timing of my communications. More on how in a moment.
This is an “all of our problem” thing. And it’s a “we can only help each other” thing, too. Stupid human nature only being capable of growth in relationship stupid stupid mumble grumble.
This problem might be mortifying to work on, but when it comes to our writing, it’s so important that we do. No matter where and how our stress responses show up in what we write, they make our writing so much worse. They emanate emotional stink vibes. They drain readers’ energy and dull their curiosity. They make our readers feel manipulated vs. engaged. They fuck up the pacing of our plots and flatten our three-dimensional characters.
So what do we do? First: we learn to recognize the difference between fight-or-flight writing and calm writing. Then we learn to mop up the barf.
Fight, flight, fawn, freeze: here’s how each one shows up in distinctive ways on the page.
Below is a list of specific, common stress-response manifestations in creative writing. I’ve observed each one many times over the years. Many times. From many many different people.
This is by no means a comprehensive list, but all are common enough that I hope you will feel subtweeted by at least one. I sure do.