My Valentine’s Day article about love, intimacy, and trauma (link below) earned pushback from more than one person who found my definitions of the human experience didn’t line up with theirs.
So it goes with our attempts to model reality. The process of trying to distill an infinity of information down to something that can be understood as “language” results in…well, aesthetic choices. I might choose to look at love as an experience of safety, and you might choose to look at it as a set of emotions. This is why we have to explain ourselves when we start defining things and declaring how things interrelate.
The same problem arose from my reference to the 4Fs trauma typology created by a therapist named Pete Walker: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. The 4Fs system has become increasingly popular in trauma psychology. I see it in trauma memes, pop psych blogs/articles, and webinar advertisements everywhere. Unfortunately, Walker co-opted terminology that’s been used in biological sciences for 100 years. Now people aren’t sure how his model fits with the established Fight/Flight/Freeze model of survival threat response.
I’ve been assembling a detailed critical analysis of the 4Fs model for awhile. I’m not going to present it here, though. I just want to clarify the distinctions between Walker’s use of language and that of the biologists who laid the path for his work in trauma psychotherapy.
The 3 Fs of Acute Stress
The idea of “fight-or-flight” arose as early as 1915 to describe the behavior of animals that find themselves in intense stress. It applies to the human animal too, of course. The ideas evolved with further research into the three commonly known reactions of the mind-body when under duress: flee from the source of the threat if you can, fight it if you can’t, or freeze if you don’t expect to survive a fight (so it might not see you when you stop moving).
The model has been expanded into more detail since. “Freeze” describes two distinct phases of response. There’s an “arrest and orient” kind of freezing that people/animals do when a threat appears. We stop moving, turn our eyes toward the source of threat (noise or visual object), and pause. Then we try to flee or, if we have to, fight. When the fight is lost and the threat has overtaken us, there’s a deeper “freeze” that takes place: a giving-up that leads to complete immobility and psychological dissociation. This is commonly called tonic immobility. I suspect it’s part of the “out of body experience” you have when you’re about to die.
All of this happens in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS has two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic, which automatically and unconsciously regulate all manner of physiology.
The changes in the body’s functions correlate with emotions (fear, terror, rage, etc.) and cognitions, as well as complex motor behavior like pedaling your feet or balling your fists.
The 3 Fs model comes into play with psychological trauma by way of Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory. The theory links ANS behavior under acute stress to the symptoms that people experience when their trauma is triggered. It lies at the heart of proven somatic trauma therapy modalities like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR because trauma memories are recordings of unconscious reactions that are largely governed by the ANS.
So “Fight, Flight, Freeze” refers to the unconscious, autonomic physiology of a trauma and its resurgence when triggered.
Walker’s 4Fs: A typology of human behavior
Pete Walker, a California psychotherapist, created a system of diagnosing and classifying complex PTSD by drawing on his professional experiences. According to The Wayback Machine, he first published his model in 2008.
When creating his model, he evidently chose to co-opt the existing terminology and append it with Fawn. Then he designed a typology of character structures that he uses to diagnose and treat C-PTSD.
Character structures are descriptions of personality that focus on complex trauma archetypes. You might have heard of the terms narcissist, psychopath, schizoid, and masochist. These are concepts from one of the original character structure typologies created by Wilhelm Reich. Walker’s 4Fs is one of dozens of evolved typologies that have been developed to expand upon the work of psychology pioneers like Reich.
The 4Fs model attempts to categorize the personalities of people with developmental PTSD. A person’s personality is a huge collection of traits and cognitions. It includes patterns of behavior, patterns of sensemaking (“thinking”), emotional reactions to stimuli (“feeling”), self-concept and identity, etc. It does not include unconscious physiology.
There is an enormous difference between how Pete Walker uses the words “Fight, Flight, Freeze” and how Stephen Porges or Peter Levine use those words. The 4Fs describe personality. The 3 Fs describe physiology.
Which is correct?
Neither. Both. The question is wrong. It assumes there’s one right answer to trauma, and there isn’t. Even the word “trauma” is getting so overloaded that one has to first ask whether we’re talking about shock PTSD or C-PTSD, and also whether it’s developmental, relational, or both or neither; and then figure out which sets of assumptions and theories should be invoked to continue the discussion.
It seems like Western psychology is just getting hip to trauma again. I think we took a multi-decade detour after Freud, Fromm, and Reich to go play with Skinner in his box. Now that we’re coming back to the heart of the matter of human suffering, we’re going to need some time to sort out our ideas and settle into agreement. There are multiple theories in competition for the limelight, and even more methods of healing.
The 4Fs are a way to address complex trauma in Pete Walker’s method. If you like how he thinks about things, you’ll like his work.
The 3 Fs are a way to describe the physiological phenomena that occur in situations of acute stress, including traumatizing events, PTSD episodes, and (sadly) everyday stressors from living in a neoliberal capitalist society. It’s often used with Polyvagal Theory.
The 4Fs describe personality. The 3 Fs describe physiology.
All you need to do is understand the distinction so that when you talk about Fight, Flee, and Freeze your thinking is clear.
If you communicate these differences clearly to the people you know, the waters of trauma psychology and trauma healing won’t be quite so muddy.
 A scientific “theory” is a model of reality that helps predict observations. That’s it. It’s not the full picture of reality. Nor is it a weak idea that needs refinement into a ‘law’. It’s just one of many models that is useful when it makes accurate predictions and useless when it doesn’t.
 Personality doesn’t explicitly include the unconscious mind. The unconscious is necessarily implicated in any description of the preconscious and conscious, but modern personality systems categorically stay “above the water line”.
 If you want the gory details of the entire defensive survival response in animals/humans, here’s an article from the Harvard Review of Psychiatry that lays it all out.