Stress and the 4 Fs

I am in New York City March 6-19, 2018, retaking the coaching classes through Erickson Coaching International that I originally completed when I took their coaching program in 2012. I wanted to sharpen my coaching skills before I have to submit three recorded coaching sessions to the International Coach Federation as a requirement to obtain my next credential with them, Professional Certified Coach (PCC).

My learning this time around is so much deeper and revealing, now that I have been coaching for six years. I find myself clapping my hands together and saying under my breath, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” It’s reminding me that there is a neuroscientific reason for the things that Erickson taught us to do, such as not facing our client directly but arranging our chairs so we are more at an angle. Ideally, we might be perpendicular to each other, but I prefer about a 15 degree angle.

In 2012, my instructor was Tony Husted. I am loving the fact that I am getting all kinds of different perspectives from Amy Davis as my instructor this time. And I have access to watch other Erickson instructors presenting the same material through videos in the Erickson Online Academy. As a former corporate trainer, it's interesting to see how those instructors – dancing in the moment, depending on that particular group of students and everything that has happened up to then – come up with their own examples and ways of explaining the content.

Young opossum "playing possum" or "playing dead"

Apologies that this opossum "playing dead" looks more like roadkill. It's the best I could find. The idea of "Playing Dead" is often used to describe the Freeze stress response in humans.

During the explanation of the 4 Fs of the brain's stress response, the heavens parted in 2012 when Tony shared the third F with the class. I had always heard of the first two Fs, like most people, Fight or Flight. Neither really ever resonated with me. I could see myself fleeing (or flighting?) a stressful situation but not quite. And forget about fighting, though I have had instances of blowing up at someone without much provocation. That’s fighting too, in the modern era when we don’t have sticks and rocks readily available in the office environment.

Tony identified the third F as Freeze. During my 2018 class, I think I must have checked out for a minute or two because I didn't catch any of the 4 Fs discussion. I asked a classmate and copied down what he wrote: Fight, Flight, Faint or Flirt/Sex.

I did some research on the 4 F's and the best article I found, in my opinion, was this one on HuffPost:

That author called the third F, Fear. I guess they are all getting at the same point. Faint, fear, freeze.

The most potent line from that article for me was:
"In the stress equation, the third F (fear) reminds us that our thoughts can be
just as potent as external threats."

Image of fog where a person's head should be

When you feel like you're in a fog or your head is in the clouds, it is often due to your brain's stress response releasing a cocktail of neurochemicals (hormones) into your brain.


Powerful, yes. But the word, Freeze, deeply resonated with me and has continued to do so for the six years since I heard it. I have shared it countless times with clients who faced the same infuriating reaction at work. The boss challenges you, and your mind goes blank. You're in a meeting and someone asks you for your opinion, and you can't seem to put two words together. You imagine yourself looking like the proverbial deer in headlights.

For me, I was transported back to my teenage years when my parents got in my face and asked me why I did something. The best I could get out of my mouth was, "I don't know."

It's the same stress response when we feel we've been insulted and can't think of a witty comeback, until hours later back at home. If it's your boss, then your brain is absolutely helping you survive modern threats with this response from your smarter brain: "Oh man, this guy is gonna say something stupid and get himself fired. Then we won't eat and will end up on the street. Somebody flip that switch, and release the hormones! Let's make sure this guy can't think of a thing to say. He might look dumb for a moment but at least he'll keep his job."

When I think of how our brains really are trying to protect us, I'll always think of the 2015 animated movie, "Inside Out" with Amy Poehler that showed the inside of the human brain with a large console operated by various feelings at any given moment.

Image from the movie Inside Out with all Feelings characters gathered around a console in the brain.

This Freeze response has plagued me my whole life so to hear another human being put a name to it and acknowledge that it's really something, it was so liberating for me. I understand that using the word Faint is getting to the same idea, and it's all semantics. But I think of fainting, as well, fainting. Losing consciousness.

A deer in headlights

The proverbial deer in headlights.

The horror of the Freeze response is that you are a witness in a most conscious way to everything that is going on around you, probably heightened due to the hormones flooding your brain.

I know it's just a word, but I wanted to put out another option that was more descriptive for me, since it has had such a profound effect on my own personal development. I still deal with my own Freeze response in my coaching practice today. When a client challenges me on something I just said, and I zone out for a moment, I can come back and take a deep breath and say to myself, "Whoops, I just got freezed!" and if all I can get out in the moment is, "Got it" and a nod, then I buy myself some time to reengage. "Tell me more about that." I bought more time for myself. By then, I am back in the game.

What are all the resourceful ways you have dealt with your own unique brand of stress response? Most of them can be alleviated simply by taking a deep breath or two.