The 4 Types of Trauma Responses

This content has been updated from previous article posted February 3, 2022

The Covid pandemic, which wreaked havoc in people’s daily lives, has now finally come to an end. During these stressful few years, it triggered the fight or flight response in many individuals due to the perceived threat to their health and safety. The uncertainty surrounding the virus, its rapid spread, and the potential for severe illness or death caused significant fear and anxiety.

When people encountered situations related to COVID-19, it triggered their fear response, such as the risk of coming into contact with an infected person, experiencing symptoms, or hearing incessant news about the pandemic.

That fear has created physical effects on many people’s bodies. This is because when people are faced with fearful situations, their body responds with a “fight or flight” reaction. The “Fight or Flight response” is defined as the automatic physical reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. You have likely heard of this term before.

To better understand these responses, let’s take a look at an example of how this could come to life. If you happen to find yourself face-to-face with a tiger, would you be more likely to take out a weapon and fight? Or would you lace up your best running shoes and run away – taking flight? Both reactions are considered normal for different types of people. However, there’s more to the story. In today’s society, it’s highly unlikely you will have to face a tiger, but traumatic events that involve actual or threatened death, serious injury, or threat to one’s physical or psychological well-being can sometimes lead to the development of traumatic disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These events can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, causing intense fear, helplessness, or horror.

Defining The Four F’s of Trauma Response

The four “F’s” of trauma response are commonly referred to as the four primary adaptive responses that individuals may exhibit when faced with threatening or abusive situations.

These various trauma responses may have been learned as a means of survival in childhood, abusive relationships, or severe trauma. The type of response then reoccurs later in life as a default every time the person faces anything they perceive as a threat.

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

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

These four types of trauma responses can manifest in different ways for different people. For example, a healthy fight response may look like having firm boundaries, while an unhealthy fight response may be explosive anger. In an ideal situation, an individual should be able to access healthy parts of all four types of trauma responses.

Having an understanding of each of these types of trauma responses can help you understand your own behaviors. It’s necessary to have this understanding in order to take the first step toward changing your behavioral patterns and begin the healing process. By taking this step you will be able to face a difficult situation and choose what kind of response works best at that moment, rather than defaulting to learned behaviors that may have been more negative in the past.

Understanding The Fight Trauma Response

The fight response is self-preservation and for people using it, it doesn’t matter who they hurt in the process. In some cases, the fight response is helpful and healthy. For example, if a wild animal threatens you and you shoot or trap it, you have responded to the threat in an appropriate way. Similarly, if someone speaks to you in a condescending 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:

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

However, when someone has been exposed to intense trauma over time, the fight response can become unhealthy. For some people, it may feel as though the threat of the tiger never went away. As a result, they find themselves always feeling as though they are on high alert, ready to fight.

An unhealthy fight trauma response can result in:

  • 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 with 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, but it’s important to recognize that you don’t need to respond this way forever. Therapy is an excellent tool for changing our behavioral patterns, even the ones that are deeply ingrained.

Understanding The Flight Trauma Response

When the threat seems impossible to defeat in a fight, a person may default to leaving the situation entirely. That is the flight trauma response. Similarly to 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. This is so that you will 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

The majority of the responses listed above are attempts to outrun or out-work the perceived danger.

Understanding The Freeze Response

Though not as common as fight and flight, the freeze response is one with which many people are familiar. In nature, you might recognize it as “playing possum” – a term that is used to describe an animal playing dead or asleep when threatened. When applied to people, an individual will pause instead of trying to fight the danger or run away.

In a healthy freeze, the 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 in a threatening situation 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.

Understanding 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 productive. 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 escape the situation. Individuals with a fawn trauma response tend to be highly attuned to the emotions and needs of others. This sensitivity can enable them to empathize deeply with others’ experiences and provide support or comfort. Their ability to understand and connect with others’ emotions may foster compassion and create a nurturing environment for those in need. In addition, If individuals have experienced abusive or dangerous situations in the past, the fawn response may serve as a strategy to minimize potential harm or maintain their physical and emotional safety. While this response may not always be healthy or sustainable, it can initially provide a sense of protection.

It’s important to note that while these positive effects may exist in certain contexts, the fawn trauma response can still pose challenges and hinder personal growth and well-being. Over time, excessive people-pleasing, self-neglect, and the suppression of one’s authentic needs can lead to emotional exhaustion, codependency, and a loss of personal agency.

Working with a therapist or counselor who specialize in trauma disorders and PTSD specifically can be beneficial for individuals who identify with the trauma response. They can help explore healthier coping strategies, establish boundaries, and develop self-compassion and assertiveness skills. The goal is to strike a balance between empathetic and compassionate behaviors towards others while prioritizing one’s own well-being and authentic self-expression.

Treatment options for traumatic disorders like PTSD include psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), as well as medication in some cases. Seeking professional help is crucial for individuals who are struggling with the impact of a stressful event and experiencing ongoing distress.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.