When You’re Threatened

Janet Coburn
3 min readJun 9, 2024

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We’ve all heard the phrase fight-or-flight and know generally what it means — the two basic reactions to threats. The fight-or-flight response to threats was a literal life-saver for our ancestors. If they were being attacked by a saber-tooth tiger, for example, their best bets were to try to kill it or to run away from it. It was a simple matter of survival.

Nowadays, however, we don’t find ourselves in that sort of situation very often, unless we encounter a bear or other dangerous animal. For most of us, the obvious response is to run away. There have been accounts of people who were able to fight off mountain lions, but most times, it’s just not realistic to fight unless there’s no other choice.

But when it comes to psychology, the fight-or-flight response often refers to a response to a verbal or emotional attack. When someone yells at you, you can either fight back by attacking them verbally too, or by running away, leaving the situation. Fighting back is usually counterproductive and fleeing is sometimes not physically possible or only a temporary solution. If you’ve been in a physically or emotionally abusive situation, you know what I mean.

There are other reactions to threats that are possible, and they’re not usually under your control. The first is to freeze. Of course, this would not be a very good reaction to a vicious animal unless you believe it won’t attack if you don’t move either toward or away from it. If the attack is already underway, freezing prevents you from trying any other, potentially better, reaction.

It’s not a very helpful response to a psychological threat, though. It can make the other person escalate their behavior. I’ve experienced this in the case of someone who was emotionally abusive. I froze and couldn’t respond to what he was saying. He responded by saying he wanted to kick me when I didn’t answer. We were on the phone, though, so he had no way to do it at the time. And by the time we were back home, he didn’t repeat the threatening remark, which I now realize was a verbal threat only, an expression of anger but not an actual threat of physical violence. At the time, though, it was frightening. If anything, I froze more.

The other potential reaction to a threat (and one that also begins with f) is to fawn or try to appease the threatening person. You give in to what they’re saying or promise to do better. You could retreat into people-pleasing mode and try to defuse the conflict that way. Or you could try to smooth over the situation with expressions of love and devotion.

This isn’t a very helpful response, either. Basically, it gives the threatening or abusive person what they want — compliance and “good behavior.” It may defuse the situation in the present moment, but it can set up a pattern in which you always respond with self-blame or praise for the abuser.

Fawning can be a tactic that you learned in your early childhood. If your parents or caregivers withheld praise or insisted on superior performance, you may have learned that you had to “perform” in order to receive love. That trait can persist in adulthood.

Another reaction that’s been suggested is “face.” This is proposed as the preferred reaction to verbal or emotional threats. It means standing firm when a threat of this kind happens. Admittedly, it seems to be the most mature option, a choice rather than an automatic reaction. And it could disarm the threatening person since you don’t react in an expected way to the threat. But the “face” reaction takes practice. It doesn’t come naturally to someone who feels truly threatened. And it can be read as defiance, which could escalate the situation.

Still, facing the threat preserves a person’s self-esteem and sense of agency. And for those reasons, it’s worth a try, if you feel it’s safe.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.