OK, just to get this out of the way…..the four dysfunctional F’s of stress are not F-off, F-it, F-you or F-this-sh*t.

At least not for the purposes of this post 🙂

The F’s I’m going to talk about today refer to the behaviors people revert to — their default setting — when they are under stress, whether it be related to conflict, unwelcome news or a series of bad days/weeks/years at work.

(And for those of you dog lovers out there, these are also the same four behaviors dogs will show when under stress.)

While these particular behaviors are common, they are not productive or helpful when trying to move past the stress-inducing event.

They’re almost always fear-based and while their intent is to protect us from harm, most of time they prevent us from really addressing the source of stress and finding a solution.

In order to move beyond past these behaviors, we must first know which one (or ones) of these are our default setting. When we are able to recognize that we have gotten stuck , we can  start taking healthy steps to resolving the stress.

F #1: Freeze

Freezing, as the name implies, means that the stressful situation you are in paralyzes you into in-action. Sometimes it’s even hard to speak.

The instinct to “freeze” can happen when we get embarrassed or or have an overwhelming fear about a situation.

I tend to freeze when something comes up that scares me financially. For example, I made a mistake on my taxes a few years ago and got a letter from the IRS that stated I was being audited and owed $3000.

Total panic mode.

I was so scared about what might happen that I couldn’t think about anything beyond “I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t want to pay $3000.”

it took me at least an hour before I was able to shake off my panic enough to read through the letter and realize that the mistake I made actually warranted a larger refund for me.


We freeze when we don’t want to face what is happening. It’s our brain’s way of trying to give us a little bit of time to figure out what the next step is.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to get stuck here.  If we stay too long in the deep freeze, it’s hard to take any action at all.

F #2: Flee

Fleeing will be your chosen response when staying in the situation seems so toxic, that you can’t think of anything else to do but leave. Immediately.

This used to happen to me if someone was really angry with me, even if their anger was irrational and I was not actually to blame. If I got yelled at, I wanted to get away from them as fast as possible.

My pattern was to run first and ask questions (or not) later.

Fleeing allows you to avoid stress and conflict temporarily because of the old “out of sight, out of mind” principle.

However, fleeing doesn’t do anything to address the source of the stress. When you run away from it instead of facing it, it’s kind of like running on a track. You keep coming right back to it, over and over again, until you stop and face it.

F #3: Fool Around

Get your mind out of the gutter….not that kind of fooling around. (Although I guess it could be used by some as a way to avoid stress.)

Acting silly or goofing off is the third way people deal with stress.

And I want to be really clear about this one. Play is an essential part of a healthy person’s life and a really important tool to maintaining a happy, positive attitude in the face of the day-to-day stresses of our lives.

There are positive ways to goof off that are not dysfunctional. Examples of “positive play” would be cracking a joke to lighten the mood at the office or going to play frisbee golf to unwind at the park.

But if you tell a joke to avoid talking about something difficult or if you decide to go out and get hammered with your friends instead of facing that you hate your job, these behaviors can actually create more stress rather than helping you work toward a resolution to your problem.

F #4: Fight

Fighting is the fourth dysfunctional “F” of stress behavior.

By my nature, I’m not much of a fighter. I’m more of a freezer or fleer.

But there are times when I can be nudged into fighting.

When I feel personally attacked (the words “you always” or “you never” often trigger this feeling), I want to defend myself as strongly as possible. This frequently involves yelling.

Yelling makes me feel temporarily powerful, but the feeling of power recedes pretty quickly and leaves a vulnerable, exposed, remorseful feeling in it’s wake.

Then I get into a repetitive cycle of apology and explanation of my behavior. This does not feel good at all.

Author David Viscott, in his book Emotional Resilience, wrote that often times the source of anger is an unexpressed hurt.

If you recognize fighting as one of your default settings, think back to the things that typically trigger your anger. Below the anger, is there an unresolved personal hurt that could be fueling the impulse to fight?


The goal of recognizing yourself in one or more of these four dysfunctional F’s is to move past them and onto the only real functional F: Face it.

Here are the steps that have helped me move into the Face-It Zone:

1. Recognize your default setting.

Once you realize your pattern of behavior when you are stressed, it’s easier to start taking steps to move beyond your default setting and start taking positive action.

2. Acknowledge that you would like things to be different than they are now.

I have found this to be an enormously helpful step. When I am honest that I don’t like my circumstances, I am more present to finding solutions rather than staying stuck in the situation that is causing me stress.

3. Create a safe space for yourself to process the stress.

Putting on comfy clothes, listening to music you like or engaging in a ritual that has positive associations for you (mine is making a cup of herb tea) can help your brain and body break out of your stressful behavior. You must first break the choke hold stress has on your brain before you can figure out how to solve the situation you are in.

4. Ask yourself “What’s the best next step I can take?”

With this step, you aren’t looking to solve the whole problem. You are just looking to determine the very next step you need to take to move forward. For example, when I received my IRS letter and felt frozen and unable to make an decisions, the best next step for me was to perform deep breathing exercises to ease my stress so I was able to take a look at my letter with a clear mind.

Recognizing which one of the 4 F’s (or all of them) is your go-to behavior when you are under stress is an important first step to moving toward the most important F of all….Facing It!