Helping Our Clients: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn Stress Responses

Did you know there are four types of responses to stressful events? Most of us are familiar with the Fight or Flight response, but there are two others that many people experience as well. Those are Freeze and Fawn. Helping our clients (and their support partner) understand how they might react can be very beneficial—not just for birth but for life in general.

Imagine this. Your client’s bag of waters break but her contractions haven’t started after a few hours. She is wanting an unmedicated birth but begins getting push-back from her health care providers about starting Pitocin to get things moving. Her provider is scaring her with information about fevers, infection, cesarean risks, etc. Many of us have experienced this situation with our clients before and can agree—many mothers will handle this very differently. Some mothers may fight back. Some mothers may “shut down”. Some mothers will go along with whatever their doctors suggest, even if they do not agree. (This could also apply to mothers after the birth when dealing with pediatricians, lactation support, family members, etc.)

During prenatal appointments, I like to ask both the mother and her support partner about how they typically respond to stressful situations. Then, I briefly explain the four types of responses below and ask which one they would identify most with. I ask a lot of open-ended questions about how they might respond in labor if they disagree with a nurse or their doctor/midwife.

Fight

When presented with a stressful situation, these mothers will likely get defensive and might seem “aggressive” or “stubborn”. I often refer to these mothers as the Mama Bears. If I have clients who relate to this type of response, we talk about strategies that have worked for them in the past like taking a minute to gather their thoughts alone and/or asking their provider more questions to understand the entire picture.

Flight

The mothers with this type of response would rather be anywhere than in that situation at that time. They will likely say they just can’t handle the conversation right now or they may try to find a way to come back to that situation at a later time to avoid dealing with it in the moment. When I have clients respond like this, I try to encourage them to ask for time alone so they can process their thoughts with their support people.

Freeze

I think most of us have had a situation that has caught us off guard and we just freeze in the moment. This is usually when people are unprepared when their care provider is not acting as our client had predicted. When this happens, I encourage my client to remember the phrase, “We’d like some time alone to talk about this”. By the way, do you sense a common theme with these yet?

Fawn

During my time with clients either prenatally or at the beginning of our postpartum shifts, we talk about what goals and wishes our clients have for birth/postpartum. In this type of response, these mothers/partners believe one thing, yet, when they are confronted by their care provider, we see them “cave” to their wishes even if that is not something we think they may really want. Truthfully, this one is the hardest responses for me to witness as a doula. I bet you can guess what I’m going to suggest—ask for time alone to gather their thoughts. I also help my client process through what it may look like to choose something other than what their provider is suggesting.

No matter what type of response my clients relate to, they always find it interesting to think about situations that may come and prepare for how they would likely respond. It also helps me get to know their personalities and how I can best serve them either during birth or during their postpartum time.


Katie Nyberg

CPD, CLD, CAPPA Faculty

Katie Nyberg has served hundreds of mothers, partners, and families through her role as a birth doula, postpartum doula, and childbirth educator since 2010. She believes that our society is not supporting new mothers enough and has made it her mission to help provide the missing care for women during their childbearing years. Katie has been a part of CAPPA since 2015. She is excited to combine her passions for teaching and for supporting new mothers through her role as Postpartum Doula Trainer. Katie is a frequent speaker for mothers, families, and health care providers in Iowa. She has been featured in a doula magazine, Parents Magazine, and on her local television station.

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