Trauma Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn
“What we don’t need in the midst of struggle is shame for being human.” This quote by Brene Brown illustrates the shame or guilt that may sometimes accompany our responses to traumatic experiences. According to the National Council, seventy percent of US adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. Trauma can include a host of experiences such as living through a natural disaster, experiencing racial trauma, losing a loved one, or surviving abuse. Nevertheless, trauma can manifest differently in each person. In addition, not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a mental health condition that develops when a person has difficulty coping after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. Just as our experiences and trauma symptoms differ, our responses to trauma are also varied.
In fact, your trauma response in one situation can look completely different than it does in another situation. This is all thanks to your amygdala, the part of your brain that reacts to perceived fear and sends signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then triggers the autonomic nervous system, part of the brain’s limbic system that is hard-wired for survival no matter the cost. Keep reading to find out more about four common trauma responses.
Often when we feel threatened, our initial response is to fight back. We stand our ground, especially if we believe we have the tools necessary to win. While this can sometimes manifest as actual physical or verbal fighting, it can also be in our body language, our subtle actions, or our willingness to say what we believe. Even if we feel fearful or anxious, we don’t back down. We may puff out our chests, stand tall, blame, insult, or confront. It can also look like fast breathing, dilated pupils, sweating, tense muscles, flushed skin, and our hearts hammering in our chests.
Sometimes when fighting seems too dangerous or risky, we opt to flee. Imagine a gazelle. A gazelle cannot win in a fight against a lion’s claws and teeth. However, speed is the gazelle’s strength and its greatest chance of survival. Just like the gazelle, we may seek safety by escaping or leaving the situation. We may also avoid or deny; perhaps, we even make our schedules incredibly busy to escape from uncomfortable feelings. Digestion may also slow, and our bodies may tremble or shake.
In the wild, animals will often “play dead” to protect themselves from further harm. Some predators may not want to eat an animal that is already dead. Humans may also do this when faced with a threat or traumatic experience in hopes the threat will leave them alone. This is common with sexual assault survivors who may become still and wait for the danger to pass. This freezing can occur both during and after the traumatic experience, where individuals may dissociate or shut down in order to cope with the experience. In this state, breathing slows, one may have a blunted facial expression, and one’s eyes may look spaced out or fixed. Some may describe feeling numb, disconnected, nauseous, or blank during this response.
Lesser known is the fawn response to trauma. This can look like apologizing, complementing, appeasing, or any other behavior that seeks to gain approval or diffuse a threatening situation. Those who fawn may feel that they cannot express how they truly feel and will often place everyone else’s needs before their own. Have you ever said “sorry” or pretended to be okay when you really weren’t in order to keep the peace or even keep a relationship? Frequent fawn responses may be a manifestation of codependency, a learned behavior that often involves one person sacrificing their own needs, boundaries, and even sense of self in order to maintain relationships with others and people-please.
Many of these trauma responses are survival mechanisms that are learned early on in life. While we may feel ashamed of how we reacted to a certain life event or experience guilt due to the coping skills we have developed over time, it is vital we practice self-compassion for doing the best we could. Thank your body for its effective and automatic response that aided in your survival. Take time to engage in after-care and processing of the trauma you experience. If you or someone you know is struggling from the effects of trauma, seek mental health treatment to continue your healing journey because you don’t have to face it all on your own.