Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum

CNS Spectr. 2004 Sep;9(9):679-85. doi: 10.1017/s1092852900001954.


This article reviews the existing evolutionary perspectives on the acute stress response habitual faintness and blood-injection-injury type-specific phobia (BIITS phobia). In this article, an alternative evolutionary perspective, based on recent advances in evolutionary psychology, is proposed. Specifically, that fear-induced faintness (eg, fainting following the sight of a syringe, blood, or following a trivial skin injury) is a distinct Homo sapiens-specific extreme-stress survival response to an inescapable threat. The article suggests that faintness evolved in response to middle paleolithic intra-group and inter-group violence (of con-specifics) rather than as a pan-mammalian defense response, as is presently assumed. Based on recent literature, freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint provides a more complete description of the human acute stress response sequence than current descriptions. Faintness, one of three primary physiological reactions involved in BIITS phobia, is extremely rare in other phobias. Since heritability estimates are higher for faintness than for fears or phobias, the author suggests that trait-faintness may be a useful complement to trait-anxiety as an endophenotype in research on the human fear circuitry. Some implications for the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition as well as for clinical, health services, and transcriptomic research are briefly discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Biological Evolution
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Immobility Response, Tonic / physiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic, Acute / etiology*
  • Stress Disorders, Traumatic, Acute / psychology*
  • Syncope*