A Quick Guide To Trauma Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn
How The Body Responds To Trauma
We’ve all been in situations where our bodies seem to react – or not react – before we even get a chance to think. A car suddenly stops in front of you, so you hit the brakes hard. You stand before an audience to make a speech and suddenly forget everything you practiced. A large dog runs out in front of you, barking, and you stand there unable to move. All of these are the body’s natural responses to stress, fear, or danger.
Typically, how we respond to these situations has been called the “fight or flight” response. It’s part of our survival instinct that allows us to react to potentially dangerous situations. When the brain (amygdala) processes danger or stress, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus, which then activates the sympathetic nervous system. This system then activates several hormones, including cortisol – the stress hormone – in the blood. These hormones create a series of physical responses in the body. The muscles tense, the heart starts to race, the pupils dilate, and the bladder relaxes, for instance. Whatever reaction you have to stress, or fear is a response created by the sympathetic nervous system.
When we experience trauma or a traumatic event, our bodies respond similarly to when we experience any fear or stress. The difference is that trauma can get held in the body. This means that the fear response can occur during seemingly mundane or normal situations. While a non-traumatic fear response resolves, a trauma-related response may linger. The stress hormone in the body may be at higher than normal levels, creating this “on edge” feeling almost constantly.
What determines how you respond to trauma? There is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma. Everyone is different and several factors play into the severity of your response to a traumatic event. Some of the factors that might determine this could be:
- The intensity of the trauma
- How long the trauma occurred
- How many times you’ve experienced the trauma
- The amount of support you receive before, during, and after
- The age that the trauma occurred
- Other mental health conditions
- Coping skills
Most people show some sort of response to trauma. Initial responses after a traumatic event usually include confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, or numbness. Most responses are normal and resolve over time. If the responses are more severe, long-lasting, and distressing, that may be a sign of a trauma disorder, like PTSD.
The Flight, Fight, Freeze, or Fawn Responses
Known as the stress response, these trauma responses are the body’s reactions to real or perceived danger. When your brain believes you are experiencing a dangerous situation, it will engage systems in the body to keep you alive.But, in trauma, these responses can become activated even when there is no real danger present. Or over-reactive to fairly normal situations. These responses are commonly known as the “fight or flight” response, but also include freeze and fawn responses.
The Flight Response
The flight response is the reaction of the body that causes the desire to deny, flee, or escape pain or distress. Fleeing or escaping may be literal by actually running away from a situation. But it could also be figurative, such as:
- Throwing yourself into work or school to keep yourself busy and avoid uncomfortable situations or emotions.
- Trying to avoid conflict that may bring up difficult emotions.
- Using substances to avoid uncomfortable feelings like fear, anxiety, panic, or shame.
- Attempting to be a perfectionist to avoid criticism.
The Fight Response
The fight response occurs when we believe we can overpower the threat or danger. The body will release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to help us engage in this response. Now, a healthy fight response may happen if we were to fight off a wild animal. Depending on the size of the animal, staying and fighting may be appropriate. Another example would be if someone were to speak to us in a demeaning way and the fight response was to communicate our boundaries and stand up for ourselves.
But the fight response also has the potential to be unhealthy and can result in aggressive behaviors. If your initial response is to physically harm someone who spoke in a demeaning manner, that response may be disproportionate to the danger. The fight response can appear as both physical and verbal aggression. An overreaction of the fight response can often occur in childhood abuse that includes bullying or verbal abuse.
The Freeze Response
This stress response causes you to feel stuck in place. This happens when your body feels it can neither flee nor fight. Because of this, we feel paralyzed by fear. The freeze response can lead to a flop response as well. During a real or perceived dangerous situation, the body may respond by passing out, going limp, or dissociating and failing to remember the situation. Long-term freeze responses can appear like a mask. Especially with trauma, one may hide emotions, physically detach by isolating, mentally check out, or avoid close relationships.
This response may be associated with the development of mental health conditions like phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic attacks.
The Fawn Response
The fawn response typically happens when we’ve had unsuccessful attempts to fight, flee, or freeze. It is also associated with trauma and can usually occur in those who experience childhood trauma.
The fawn response is about responding to a threat by becoming more appealing to that threat. It is about abandoning your own needs to appease and please the needs of others. This is done to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval from others.
Trauma is the root cause of the fawn response and is also associated with codependency. Some examples of fawn behavior may be:
- Difficulty saying “no”
- Unable to set and maintain boundaries
- Trying to anticipate others’ needs to please them
PTSD and C-PTSD
Though the fight, flight, or freeze trauma responses may be normal reactions to stress, fear, or danger, the fawn reaction is associated with trauma. All fear responses are heightened during, and immediately after, a traumatic event. It is when there is an overreaction of the trauma response that causes continued distress and impairment, that the trauma may become a clinical disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD can occur after a traumatic event when our bodies are unable to return to normal and regulate the stress response. When the trauma is prolonged, repeated, or long-term, the body remains heightened. This can contribute to the development of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, (C-PTSD).
JOIN AND RECEIVE A FREE WORKBOOK
Join "THE WIT" and recieve a FREE Mental Health & Emotional Wellness Workbook as well as latest update from WR, exclusive access to helpful resources and special discounts for our shop!