The 5 F’s Of Stress Response (Fight, Flight, Follow, Freeze, F*** It)

In Peter Atwater’s book, The Confidence Map, he says the situations where we are MOST stressed, are those when our feeling of certainty and control are the lowest. 

Makes sense. 

I remember sitting down for a class in high school and having the teacher say, “Clear your desks, pens and pencils only, I’m passing out the test now.” This would be fine if I was expecting a test and had, you know, studied. But with no control over the situation, and no certainty about any good outcome, my confidence bottomed out and my stress went through the roof. 

SPOILER: I didn’t do well. 

BONUS SPOILER: I didn’t die, and (as of the time of this writing) am employed. Take that, high school. 

That’s just one example of being caught in a stressful spot. It’s also just one response. Peter Atwater says there are 5 responses we’ll see when people are stressed:

Fight: I could have started yelling at the teacher

Flight: I could have fled the classroom

Follow: I mostly did this one, I went along with the instructions and put down my best and inevitably wrong guesses like a diligent student

Freeze: I could have become paralyzed, from a place of vulnerability, and just stared at the blank test in abject horror

F*** it: I could have taken the test, but deliberately showed my disdain by writing irreverent answers, or disturbing others, or anything to signal I was doing this on MY terms

Why know these? Besides their cleverness of course. Why do these 5 F’s matter?

Because anytime people are stressed, any time their sense of control and certainty are taken away or minimized, you can expect these to show up. 

And if you see any or all of the 5 F’s showing up, you can be certain it’s because of a lack of control and certainty. 

Which means – if you want to avoid, correct, or call out the F’n behaviors, you’ll want to see it in terms of Atwater’s Confidence Map framework. 

Here are some very high-level examples. As you read them, keep in mind they can be used for good or evil. Seriously – good or evil (think!):

A fight, if there’s no winner and reclaiming of confidence ,can be de-escalated, denied, or redirected to take the stress-level down. 

A flight away from danger requires a place where confidence can be restored. We can provide that. For ourselves or others when we see it occurring. 

Following others can be a protective measure. Leaders can stand up and offer confidence. 

Freezing is an attack of extreme vulnerability. Safety in the immediate surroundings needs to be restored. Movement on multiple levels can help, but whether it’s physical, emotional, or mental – the movement needs to get out of the way of the attack. 

F*** it is a tantrum. Depending on status between the tantrum-thrower and the tantrum-catcher, anything to restore order is critical to confidence. 

Knowing Atwater’s 5 F’s only show up from a place of stress is the key to understanding what’s triggering the behavior and how to get out of it. It doesn’t mean it will be pretty. It just means we’ve found ourselves in a situation where control and certainty are in short supply, and we have the opportunity to bring it back. 

Ps. This is everywhere. Value investors – you love to buy when there’s (stressful) “blood” in the streets, right? Politicians – you love to find followers, or lead them into a fight – but these start with stress, right? Just look around, and, read this book!

Pss. If control and certainty are in too much supply, think: overconfidence, this is where the 3 F’s of Fraud, Fiction, and Fake come into play. Again, all in the book!