Monday, September 20, 2021

The F family of 7 adrenaline responses

Most people have likely heard of the Fight, Flight, Freeze trio of adrenaline responses, but there are four more F responses which are less well-known: Flop, Fawn, Funster and Fib.

I think knowledge of all seven F responses is important in relation to PDA (the pathological demand avoidance neurotype) because we PDAers are naturally prone to ultra-high anxiety. Our naturally high anxiety causes adrenaline to keep on pumping through our systems to trigger these responses. It may seem to casual observers that our F reactions are baseless and/or contrived to attract attention, but the underlying reality is that these behaviours are driven by blind panic, and we have no control over them.

So let's explore them one by one:

Fight is, perhaps, the easiest F response for people to grasp, because triggered adrenaline causes visible aggression. describe the Fight response as "Your muscles tense, you start to sweat, your heart beats faster – you act on impulse to save and preserve yourself. You fight."

Many descriptions of PDA focus entirely children whose default F adrenaline response is Fight. In fact, the only existing scale to measure PDA (the EDAq) down scores children who don't default to the Fight response. For example, #13 of the EDAq is "If pressurised to do something, s/he may have a ‘meltdown’ (e.g. scream, tantrum, hit or kick)." 

The Fight response has rarely ever kicked in for me in an unfiltered, externalised way. When it has, it's usually been motivated by my wanting to protect another person or animal, e.g., my daughter. I do experience Fight during meltdown, but I attempt to internalise it (like swallowing it all in) so it manifests as brutally cruel comments.

Flight too can be obvious because the experient simply runs away. According to the Flight response causes people to feel "like they need to leave a room or location." They elaborate, "A severe fight or flight response can become a panic attack. It can also trigger asthma attacks in people with the condition."

Harvard Medical School sum up the Fight and Flight responses:

A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.

This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the "fight-or-flight" response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

I am more prone, I think, to Flight than Fight, and have a tendency to dash blindly out of busy shopping centres and discharge myself early from hospital stays. Employment has been particularly difficult for me because of this over-riding need to flee confinement.

However, as we've seen, it's not just Fight or Flight, because there are five more F adrenaline responses to consider.

The next best-known one is Freeze. A 2017 paper by Karin Roelofs says:

Freezing is a form of behavioural inhibition accompanied by parasympathetically dominated heart rate deceleration, fight-or-flight reactions are associated with sympathetically driven heart rate acceleration.

So, whereas heart rate increases during Fight or Flight, it apparently decreases when the Freeze response takes hold. 

My personal experiences of the Freeze response have been traumatic, with me feeling horrendously anxious, but totally unable to react. I've felt paralysed to the point that I've not even been able to move my head or eyes. I remember being on a school bus as a teen when boys mocked me, and I'd frozen so I couldn't respond to them at all. I felt powerless, and totally, horribly conscious of both my vulnerability and of their every taunting word. My Freeze response has been very debilitating when I've wanted to make friends with people, because I've found myself trapped within a wall of fear that I couldn't break through.

Now we come to the four lesser-known F responses: Flop, Fawn, Funster and Fib.

Flop is a response I, thankfully, have no recollection of experiencing. An easy-to-grasp example of the Flop response is fainting. Rape Crisis UK describe it like this:

Flop: similar to freezing, except your muscles become loose and your body goes floppy. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what's happening to you. Your mind can also shut down to protect itself.

Fawning is where we seek to please others and put our own needs last in order to feel safe. According to a drug rehabilitation centre’s website:

Fawning is a response marked by people-pleasing behaviors, conflict avoidance, unable to find one’s voice or ability to stand up for themselves in the face of a threat, and taking care of the needs of others to one’s own detriment. 


Many adult PDAers describe Fawning as their default adrenaline response, often adding that they hate it. I myself often default to Fawning and slip into assuming others are right and I am wrong and that my needs are of no consequence.

The Funster response is not well-documented, but it's something I'm very aware of having reacted with personally; noticed in my PDAer daughter; and which fellow PDAers, and parents of PDAers, have strongly noticed too. 


Dr Judy Eaton, one of the key PDA assessors and researchers, comments that, while she's very aware of people who ‘play the clown’, she questions whether this is an adrenaline response, arguing that all the other ‘F’s are seen in the animal kingdom. She suggests the Funster mode might be explained as a strategy to cope with not fitting in, and social anxiety. I think she raises some very salient points: 

1)  Do responses to social anxiety qualify as adrenaline responses?

2) Are all human F responses observable in the animal kingdom?

I think that this underlines yet another field of needed-research, but feel initially able to respond:

1) Social anxiety responses are, I believe, adrenaline-rooted.

I think it's worth considering that social anxiety can trigger root-level 'F' adrenaline responses. Is there any reason to assume that socially-rooted anxiety won't –to use Harvard Medical School's words– "trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes"?

2) There's a school of thought that believes the complexity of human language has seeded complex adrenaline reactions (please see my notes on the Fib response below).

It, therefore, seems logical that human adrenaline can and does trigger complex, socially-adapted defense responses. 

I can attest that when I've been possessed by what I think of as the Funster mode, this has been when I've felt intense social anxiety. My social panic has compelled me to take on a fun, joking, clown persona that I've not felt in control of. For example, when on holiday with my best friend and her boyfriend (who I didn't feel relaxed and confident with) I spent the duration of our shared time in full on clown mode. Consciously, I just wanted to make them laugh. Internally, I was in constant panic. I've been very aware of my daughter behaving like this in situations when we have people around she doesn't know well. After initially hiding and being mute, she transforms into a cheeky prankster who gains attention by naughtily annoying people (for example, climbing under the table and undoing their shoelaces). But does this social clowning qualify as a true, pure F adrenaline response?  



Let's look now at Fibbing. According to an article in the online ADHD magazine, ADDitude Mag Fibbing has recently been proposed as an alternative protective adrenaline response to the better-known trio of Fight, Flight and Freeze:

With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we have the ability to verbalize both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat.

This is certainly what my fibbing-when-caught felt like for me: it was driven by overwhelming panic. The Fib response is even referenced in the EDAq (which, as we've seen, is to date the only existing scale to measure PDA). EDAq's #18 is "Denies behaviour s/he has committed, even when caught red handed."

When the Fib response kicks in, the brain responds to surging adrenaline by fabricating a lie. Parents of PDA kids frequently talk of their children fibbing, even if they've been caught red-handed. I'm conscious when my daughter fibs that she's incredibly, paralysingly anxious about the thing she's hiding, and know that direct confrontation would merely terrify her more. She'll already be learning lessons about not repeating whatever it is she's felt driven to hide. I feel it better to comfort her and let her know in general, unheavy terms that she's supported and loved.

I largely got over my own Fib own response as a young adult. Before this, it was one of my go to adrenaline/protection responses. If I felt accused and cornered, my automatic response would be to deny culpability. I'd make up desperate, creative stories. E.g., as a young teen, I was a smoker and went to the local shop to buy cigarettes. The woman behind the counter asked good-humouredly if I was over 16, or if I was buying them for my mum. I said they were for my mum, then heard - to my total, panicked terror - my mum's voice behind me saying "hello Sally!" I fled the shop (so Flight kicked in first) and ran home to beg my brother to lend me the amount of money I'd spent on the cigarettes so I could pretend I'd bought them for my friend. I asked him to back up this story, and ran up to my friend's house, only to find she was away on a school trip to London. I ran home again, still in total, blind panic. My mum said she'd phoned my friend's home number and her mum had said she was on that London trip. My mum coaxed me to admitting that I smoked, but there was no way I would. Never! Instead, I elaborated my lie by saying a mutual friend was hanging out in the flat downstairs from my friend's flat, and that our mutual friend had asked me to buy the cigarettes to give to this other friend, so she in turn could give them to her when she got back from London!

Returning to the concept of Funster, I asked Dr Judy Eaton for her informed opinion regarding its viability as a core F adrenaline response, in the light of Fib having been proposed as one. After all, both Fib and Funster comprise complex, linguistic responses to threat, which unlike Fight, Flight, Freeze, are not known in the animal kingdom. To recap the words of ADDitude magazine, "With complex and advanced language (not available to our primitive ancestors), we have the ability to verbalize both factual and/or fictitious reasoning instantaneously at point of performance, most notably in times of stress and threat." 

Dr Judy Eaton replied that, in this light, the proposal that Funster is a core-level adrenaline response does sound viable.






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