You may have heard the term “fight or flight” to describe how people respond when faced with potential danger and harm. They could either fight or flee – in either case, the response to stress prepares the body to react to danger, even if it’s imaginary.
There are two more types of trauma response that are not as widely known.
Sometimes, people learn trauma responses as a means of survival in childhood, from abusive relationships or through experiencing severe trauma.
From this, every time someone faces a situation they think is a threat, they fall back to the same responses by default.
Understanding the 4 types of trauma response can help you understand your own behaviours and feelings. For many people, this is the very first step towards healing.
Once you understand the responses, when faced with a difficult situation in the future, you can recognise yourself better and understand what kind of response works best for you at that moment, rather than defaulting to your past learned behaviours.
The Four F’s
- Fight – confronting the threat
- Flight – running from the danger
- Freeze – unable to move or act against the threat
- Fawn – hiding from the danger
The Four F’s each describe a set of responses that can take place when we are faced with potentially threatening or abusive situations.
Each one has healthy and unhealthy ways of showing up.
The Fight Response
The fight response is self-preservation, regardless of who you hurt in the process. Sometimes, this response can be helpful and healthy.
When used in a positive way, the fight response can help you to:
- Identify and set clear boundaries
- Be courageous
- Become a strong leader
- Lead with assertiveness
- Protect yourself (and your loved ones)
On the other hand, when someone has been exposed to intense or prolonged trauma, the fight response can become unhealthy and you can feel like the threat never really goes away. People who react unhealthily are often on high alert, ready to fight.
When used in negative ways, the fight response can lead to:
- Narcissistic tendencies
- Demanding perfection from other people
- Controlling behaviours
- Feelings of entitlement
If you have had unhealthy fight responses in the past, be compassionate with yourself and try to forgive yourself. You may have learned these behaviours as a form of survival.
Psychotherapy is a life-changing tool for changing our deeply ingrained behavioural and unhealthy patterns.
The Flight Response
When a threat seems impossible to deal with, many leave the situation entirely. Just like the Fight response, fleeing can either be healthy or unhealthy.
When used positively, the fight response can help you to:
- Leave unhealthy relationships
- Remove yourself from dangerous situations
- Assess danger
- Disengage from harmful situations
When used in a negative ways, the fight response can lead to:
- Obsessive or compulsive tendencies
- Panic and constant fear
- Workaholic tendencies
- Needing to stay busy constantly
If you can identify with any of the negative flight responses, remember that it’s okay, many people do and you are only human. Living your life in constant panic is a scary place to be, but there are ways to unlearn these behaviours.
The Freeze Response
The freeze response is very common and familiar to people. Instead of trying to fight the danger or run from it, someone can pause completely.
Just like the other responses, the freeze response can be used unhealthily when trauma is involved.
For example, someone in an abusive relationship may be as suppressed, still and quiet as possible to avoid confrontation from the other person. People can feel so overwhelmed by fear that they cannot move.
When used in positively, the freeze response can help you with:
- Self awareness
- Presence in the moment
When used from a place of trauma, the freeze response can lead to:
- Zoning out constantly
- Brain fog
- Perceived laziness
- Fear of trying new things
- Difficulty making decisions
If you tend to dissociate in an unhealthy manner, it’s important to learn of the healthy ways to deal with potential danger, rather than completely closing off or shutting down.
Internalising your pain doesn’t make it go away.
The Fawn Response
Fawning is the least known trauma response and is related to people-pleasing.
When used in a positive way, the fawn response can help you with:
- Compassion for others
- Active listening
When used from a place of trauma, the fight response can lead to:
- Codependency in relationships
- Low or no boundaries
- Staying in abusive relationships
- Loss of self
- People-pleasing to the point of destruction
Helping yourself and receiving help back
Do you recognise yourself in any of these trauma responses?
Self care is an important part of unlearning current behaviours and introducing emotional change. Keeping a diary or journal can really help you recognise and understand yourself better, which is the first step towards change.
Psychotherapy is also a really effective way to deal with trauma, even if you don’t think your past is “bad enough” to warrant psychotherapy, you just might benefit from it.
We all have things we can work through, we all respond to stress in different ways, but learning to respond in healthier ways can help you in the core areas of your life.
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”
― Fred Rogers