blurred imageof a man experiencing a traumatic episode

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that can overwhelm an individual’s ability to cope. It can leave lasting imprints on one’s mind and body, often triggering automatic biological responses aimed at self-preservation. Most of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” response that occurs in periods of high stress. But trauma is often too painful, frightening, and complicated to be relegated to two responses. There are, in fact, at least five observed trauma responses, each with unique characteristics and mechanisms. A person may experience one or all of these responses when they feel they are in great danger.  

The Five Trauma Responses

Fight

The fight response is characterized by aggression and a readiness to confront threats head-on. It is associated with elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the blood, which obscure decision-making in favor of physical confrontation. When triggered by past trauma, individuals exhibiting the fight response may become agitated, argumentative, or physically aggressive. 

The fight response can be a healthy way of dealing with a perceived threat, such as an animal attack or other physical altercation. In other situations, however, the fight response to trauma can lead to strained relationships, poor work performance, and generally lower quality of life. Again, the fight response is not limited to physical aggression. It may involve:

Flight

The flight trauma response involves the instinct to flee or escape from perceived danger. Individuals experiencing the flight response may feel overwhelmed by fear and the urge to run away from the source of trauma. This response is driven by the innate need to seek safety and refuge, often without much consideration for potential consequences. 

Like the fight response, flight can be an appropriate behavior in certain circumstances, such as a natural disaster or a fire. But as a trauma response, it may also result in avoidance behaviors that hinder long-term healing and recovery. The flight response may not always look like physically removing oneself from a situation. It can also present as:

Freeze

The freeze response is characterized by a state of immobilization or paralysis in the face of threat. When triggered, individuals experiencing the freeze response may feel unable to move or act, as if they are temporarily “frozen” in place. Breathing and heart rate may skyrocket, leading to a feeling of detachment from one’s body. 

Freezing is an adaptive mechanism designed to minimize the likelihood of detection by predators or threats. When it occurs in response to trauma, though, it can lead to negative outcomes that affect a person’s ability to function. Like the fight and flight trauma responses, freezing can have many guises:

Fawn

A lesser discussed trauma response is called “fawning.” Fawning involves seeking to appease or please others in order to avoid harm or conflict. Individuals exhibiting the fawn response may adopt submissive behaviors, such as people-pleasing, compliance, or ingratiating themselves with others. This response is often rooted in a desire to gain acceptance or protection from perceived threats. 

Placating a threat can be useful in certain situations, but fawning can also lead to negative consequences, such as staying in an abusive relationship or loss of autonomy. The fawn response to trauma may look like:

Flop/Fright

The flop response is another lesser-known trauma response. It is similar to freezing, but it escalates into involuntary immobility. The flop response occurs in many animals when they feel they can neither escape nor fight a predator. It is sometimes referred to as “playing dead.”

In humans, the fright trauma response often manifests as fainting. It is especially common when faced with a visual trigger, such as blood. The sight causes a physiological response called a vasovagal syncope, whereby the blood pressure and heart rate drop suddenly. 

Addressing Trauma Responses in Therapy

It is important to recognize that trauma responses are not mutually exclusive, and individuals may exhibit a combination of these reactions depending on the circumstances. Moreover, these responses are not inherently good or bad, but rather adaptive strategies shaped by past experiences and environmental factors. 

Again, many trauma responses are completely appropriate and short-lived. It is when they become pervasive and affect quality of life that they become an issue. Addressing damaging trauma responses will require treating the root cause of the problem along with behaviors and details specific to the individual. 

A combination of talk therapy and medication may be used to help retrain certain behavior patterns and alleviate comorbid symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. In some instances, alternative therapies may be advisable. Ketamine assisted psychotherapy, for example, has shown great promise in the treatment of individuals with PTSD, as has EMDR therapy. 

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