You have likely heard the term “fight or flight” to describe what people do in response to frightening situations. For example, when you come face-to-face with a bear, are you likely to swing at the animal with a weapon of some kind or do you run? If the example of the bear does not create this kind of an association for you, consider a vicious dog who managed to break loose from the chain after it had been barking at you when you were walking by. Now, it is sprinting towards you…
While these labels begin to describe our typical reactions to frightening situations, they do not capture the in-depth present-day experience that we also need to consider to understand trauma. In modern day society, frightening situations can encompass the human experience of emotional trauma rather than a dangerous dog or a bear in the wilderness.
WHAT ARE THE FOUR F’S OF TRAUMA RESPONSE?
Most people are aware of the two F’s: fight…or flight… However, the four different trauma responses individually describe a set of reactions that we may experience when we are faced with a threatening or abusive situation.
It may be that people attain these trauma responses as a mechanism to survive in childhood or in a psychologically abusive relationship. Both of these are examples that refer to a series of traumatic events and not a single traumatic incident. However, the same is true when people go through a single traumatic experience, such as a physical assault or a natural disaster. Then, every time you face anything you perceive as a threat, it is likely that you default to the same types of responses.
There are four types of trauma responses that are widely recognized in the mental health field and they are as follows:
When we recognize the trauma responses in our own thought processes or behavioral patterns, then we can better understand our own actions. For many people, that is the first step toward change and healing. Then, when faced with a difficult situation again, we are more likely to choose the best response, rather than defaulting to learned behaviors.
WHAT IS THE FIGHT TRAUMA RESPONSE?
The fight trauma response serves the goal to protect yourself in an aggressive manner against the threat and has the purpose of self-preservation. Sometimes, the fight response is helpful and healthy. For example, if a wild animal threatens you and you shoot or trap it, you have responded to a threat in an appropriate way. Similarly, if someone speaks to you in a demeaning or abusive way, you might say, “I will not let you speak to me that way,” which is a healthy fight response.
Here are some positive ways that the fight trauma response can help you:
However, when someone has been exposed to prolonged or intense trauma, the fight response can become unhealthy. For some people, it’s like the threat of the vicious dog never went away. So they are always on high alert, ready to fight.
An unhealthy fight trauma response can lead to:
Sometimes unhealthy fight responses turn inward. People can feel incredibly angry at themselves for seemingly no reason.
If you have had unhealthy fight responses in the past, take time to be compassionate with yourself. You may have learned these behaviors in order to survive and be safe. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be like this forever. Therapy is an excellent tool for changing the behavioral patterns, even the ones that are deeply ingrained.
WHAT IS THE FLIGHT TRAUMA RESPONSE?
When the threat seems insurmountable people are likely to engage in avoidant behaviors as a response to dealing with the circumstance, sometimes to the point of isolating from everyone. This response might be observed, for example, in a child who dashes from his classroom when distressed or an adolescent who elopes from her foster home when feeling rejected or threatened. This is the flight trauma response. Like with the fight response, flight can be either healthy or unhealthy.
In healthy situations, a flight response to stress can help you:
When trauma is involved, an unhealthy flight response may lead to:
Many of these responses are attempts to outrun or out-work the perceived danger.
WHAT IS THE FREEZE RESPONSE?
Though not as well-known as fight and flight, the freeze response is one with which many people are familiar. In nature, you might recognize it as “playing possum.”However, in humans freezing manifests as an inability to communicate, react or take any action of self-preservation or defense; Instead of trying to fight the danger or run away, there is a pause. For example, when a child is not able to fight or run from perceived danger, it triggers a panic response, making one numb or immobile in the face of the threat.
The healthy freeze response can look like:
When someone habitually reacts to stress with an unhealthy freeze response, it can cause:
Some people get stuck in using the freeze response because they fear the danger will still exist when they “thaw.” It’s important to learn healthy ways to deal with a real or perceived danger, rather than completely shut down. A therapist can help you learn to use the freeze response in a healthy way.
WHAT IS THE FAWN TRAUMA RESPONSE
Fawning is the least known trauma response and the most recent addition to the primary trauma reactions towards perceived threat. Fawning is primarily related to people-pleasing in the context of maintaining the sense of safety at the expense of getting one's own needs met. For example, when a child learns to cope by taking care of the parent’s emotional needs, that child is relying on a defense structure called “fawn” response.
A healthy fawning response can facilitate:
Sadly, people who have been in some kind of relationship with a toxic person often develop unhealthy fawning responses.
The fawn response to trauma can cause:
Do you recognize yourself in any of these unhealthy trauma responses? Even if you don’t think your past is “bad enough” to warrant therapy, you may benefit from it. The truth is that almost everyone has something they could work through in therapy! Learning to respond to stress in a variety of healthy ways can help you in many areas of life.
I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in PA. After receiving my MSW at the University of Pittsburgh, I have dedicated my professional career on working with children and their families as I advocate for their needs in our educational system.