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The 4 Types of Trauma Responses

Mother argues with adult daughter
By Lifestance Health on January 5, 2021

You have likely heard the term “fight or flight” to describe what people do in response to scary situations. For example, you as face-to-face with a tiger. Are you the kind of person who takes a weapon and start swinging? Or do you run? 

While these terms begin to describe people’s normal reactions to frightening situations, there’s more to the story. In today’s society, the scary situations people find themselves in are more likely to involve emotional trauma than a tiger. 

What Are The Four F’s of Trauma Response? 

The Four F’s of trauma response each describe a set of responses that someone may have when faced with threatening or abusive situations. 

Sometimes, people learn these trauma responses as a means of survival in childhood, abusive relationships, or severe trauma. Then, every time the person faces anything they perceive as a threat, they default to the same types of responses. 

The mental health community broadly recognizes four types of trauma responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

Each of the four types of trauma responses has healthy and unhealthy ways of showing up. For example, a healthy fight response may look like having firm boundaries, while an unhealthy fight response may be explosive anger. Ideally, people are able to access healthy parts of all four types of trauma responses.

Understanding each of these types of trauma responses can help you understand your own behaviors. For many people, that is the first step toward changing their behavioral patterns and healing. Then, when faced with a difficult situation again, you can choose what kind of response works best at that moment, rather than defaulting to learned behaviors.

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What is The Fight Trauma Response?

The fight response is self-preservation no matter who you hurt in the process. Sometimes, the flight 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 won’t let you speak to me that way,” which is a healthy fight response. 

When used in a positive way, the fight trauma response can help you:

  • Establish firm boundaries
  • Be assertive
  • Find courage
  • Become a strong leader
  • Protect yourself (and loved ones) when necessary

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 tiger never went away. So they are always on high alert, ready to fight. 

An unhealthy fight trauma response can lead to:

  • Controlling behaviors
  • Narcissistic tendencies
  • Bullying
  • Conduct disorder
  • Demanding perfection from others
  • Feelings of entitlement

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 a moment 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 our behavioral patterns, even the ones that are deeply ingrained. 

What is The Flight Trauma Response? 

When the threat seems impossible to defeat in a fight, many people default to leaving the situation entirely. That 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:

  • Disengage from harmful conversations
  • Leave unhealthy relationships
  • Remove yourself from physically dangerous situations
  • Properly assess danger

The flight response is an important one to be able to access in a healthy way. After all, you want to be able to sense real danger and leave it when possible. However, people with unresolved trauma may perceive everything as a danger, leading to unhealthy flight responses. 

When trauma is involved, an unhealthy flight response may lead to:

  • Obsessive or compulsive tendencies
  • Needing to stay busy at all times
  • Panic and constant fear
  • Perfectionism
  • Workaholic tendencies
  • An inability to sit still

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.” Instead of trying to fight the danger or run away, someone pauses. 

When done in a healthy way, the freeze response can look like:

  • Mindfulness
  • Awareness
  • Full presence in the moment

As with the other stress responses, the freeze response can become unhealthy when trauma is involved. For example, a child who has an abusive parent may be as still and quiet as possible to avoid the parent’s wrath. Or someone may become so overwhelmed by fear that they cannot move. 

When someone habitually reacts to stress with an unhealthy freeze response, it can cause:

  • Dissociation
  • Isolation
  • Frequent “zoning out”
  • Brain fog
  • Difficulty making decisions or taking actions
  • Perceived laziness
  • Fear of achieving or trying new things

Some people get stuck in this pattern of freezing 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 shutting down. A licensed therapist can help you learn to use the freeze response in a healthy way. 

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What is The Fawn Trauma Response?

Fawning is the least known trauma response, and it is primarily related to people-pleasing. Individuals who spend a lot of time around toxic people sometimes learn to go above and beyond to make the toxic person happy, thus neutralizing the threat. 

In some cases, fawning can be great. For example, if you throw a piece of meat at a dog that is chasing you, you just might distract them long enough to use your flight response and get out of the situation. 

A healthy fawning response can facilitate:

  • Compassion for others
  • Compromise
  • Active listening
  • Fairness

Unfortunately, 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:

  • Codependent relationships
  • Someone to stay in a violent relationship
  • Loss of self
  • People-pleasing to the point of destruction
  • Little or no boundaries

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, including work, family, and relationships.

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