4 Types of Trauma Responses – Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

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To better understand these 4 types of trauma responses, it is important to know that all reactions are considered normal for different types of people. However, there’s more to this than you could in imagine.

The 4 types of trauma responses each describe a set of responses that you may have learned when faced with threatening or abusive situations.

One or two of these 4 trauma responses would have been learned as a means of survival in your childhood, recurrent abuse. The type of response then reoccurs later in life as a default every time you face anything you perceive as a threat.

The four types of trauma responses:

Fight
Flight
Freeze
Fawn

Having an understanding of each of these types of trauma responses can help you to understand some of your own behaviors. This is important to know as it explains why it is difficult to change and how some of our behaviors are carved into our bodies due to our childhood experiences. Those responses worked well to help you survive your past but I am sure you agree that it is not working for you right now.

What happens when we have experienced childhood trauma?

You would respond, regardless of the situation with one, maybe two of the Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn types. This was a way of coping as a child, but when we carry those behaviours into adulthood, it can cause problems, as you can imagine, for us.

Just to express quite strongly here that these behaviours are learned behaviours in response to your childhood environment. It is not a character flaw or a weakness. You did what you needed to do to survive.

The great news is that, what was learned back then, can be unlearned and you can learn more helpful behaviours. It starts by understanding yourself a little bit more and trying to recognise what your response type is.

Also, no ONE response is better or worse than the other as we all need to respond in any of the given four types at some time or another. It is OK for you to fight back at times, it is OK to escape from difficult or annoying situations, it is OK to take part in activities that allow you to zone out and be still, and it is OK to be helpful and kind. As it is with the Fawn response which I will go into later.

When you just do one of those all the time, it will cause you difficulties.

We then can often find ourselves, as adults, constantly in fight mode where we believe unconsciously exuding that power and control will create safety. Or maybe flight where if you think there is a threat, like a deer, you will respond by running or symbolically, by launching into hyperactivity.

You have also the freeze response like the deer just about being eaten by the tiger who “freezes”. You tend to respond to life like that by either using things to numb what you think is painful even if it is an emotional pain and there are ways we disconnect here psychologically which I will explain later.

 

The Fawn Response

There is the lesser-known fawn response which is a term coined by I believe Pete Walker in his book Complex PTSD from surviving to Thriving. This is where you feel safe by seeking safety by integrating with the wishes, needs, and demands of other people.

This is where the wishes and needs of other people would always supersede your needs and demands. Here you can’t help putting others first, often to your own physical and emotional detriment.

You may find that you are a:

Co-dependent – I did a previous podcast on co-dependency which I will also link to

Now the list I got here is from the Pete Walker book, a link to it I’ve put somewhere, and as a recovering Fawner myself, I agree to a lot of these even though some of these are quite difficult to listen to. It’s not meant to put you down in any way shape or form. It’s a way for you to understand, how your trauma has affected your life.

We tend to:

You may find that you grovel a lot
Always saying sorry
Not able to have your own life, living it for others
Prefer to give than receive
No identity
People Pleaser
Some say you’re a doormat
Social perfectionism – in terms of how others see you
Some people who always try hard to be funny are also Fawn – a classic example is Robin Williams the comedian.
Others include, Over listening to others, One sided relationship
We can also enable or allow others’ poor behaviour. By enabling that basically means we let them get away with it and we don’t let them experience the consequences of their actions.

 

The Fight Response

Flight types believe that with control and power, they will be safe

Maybe as a child, in order to feel safe, they needed to fight back either emotionally or physically. Or try and be controlling in order to feel secure in their childhood. They are unconsciously driven by the belief that power and control can create safety, not feel abandoned and they will secure love. Growing up as an adult, we don’t learn to switch that off.

In the Pete Walker book, he actually said that a lot of fight types are actually spoilt and they’re not set any sort of limits at all as a child. They are not said NO too, They’re not given boundaries, just left to do what they want to do basically and the whole world revolves around them.

Fight types are unconsciously driven by the fact that power and control can create safety. They need that so they won’t feel abandoned or alone. Examples of fight types include those who are narcissistic.

We find the word narcissism diagnosed a lot on the internet but a lot of people get it wrong. Narcissism is on a spectrum where you get on the one end those with the full-blown personality disorder and those with fewer traits but we all have some narcissistic traits. Read more about it here.

Other traits include:

Narcissistic (extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance)
Aggressive
Passive-aggressive
Controlling
Nice – Nasty
Overly demanding
Entitlement
Type A
Bully
Autocratic
Demands Perfection
Shames others
Sociopath

 

The Flight Response

The definition of a Flight type unconsciously believes that perfection will make them safe and loveable. Fight types are unconsciously driven by the fact that power and control can create safety.

This is a really hard trauma response because many Flight types believe there is a level where they are OK. It’s just like the on button is never switched off and they are never content with themselves or with things.

That’s why they can often suffer from sleep issues, stomach issues

like IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). That’s because their bodies, do not stop

Some of the traits include

Hyperactive
Obsessive
Running away
Compulsive
Compulsive rituals
Hoarding
Panicky
Rushing
Worrying
Driven-ness
Adrenaline junkie
Busyholic
Micromanager
Compelled by perfectionism
Over analytical
Abuses stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate, cocaine etc

 

The Freeze Response

The freeze response happens when an individual unconsciously believes they are powerless and can’t run away or fight back when the situation seems overwhelming. They could also see other people as dangerous and not safe.

I have a classic example of the freeze response in a working environment. For example, If a colleague suddenly shouts at you, furious for no good reason, you might yell back and stand your ground. This is fight mode. Or you might just back off and walk away, telling them to talk to you when they have calmed down. This is flight mode.

Or you might Freeze and find that you go totally still, numb or silent. Your colleague still continues to shout at you, calling you all the names under the sun but you feel so overwhelmed and numb. You then feel more and more detached and unable to respond. You might even dissociate, feeling very calm and as if you are watching yourself from outside of yourself. This is the freeze response.

In the face of stress, those with the Freeze response find that:

They can’t think straight if at all
are all of a sudden exhausted
feel like your body is very heavy
struggle to make a decision
that you have no emotions and you feel blank
just want to sleep and be alone, then you find that you sleep for long hours
You could even feel like you are not in your own body, that you are watching yourself from the outside looking in

There are so many ways the Freeze response could affect you in this type of scenario. Even after you may struggle as you may think over and over about things you should have said or done, you may even run the situation over and over in your head and feel guilty or stupid.

The most important thing to know here is that like all the other responses, this is a natural response that in many circumstances without the knowledge and some strategies to manage what is happening. You have very little control and the most important thing to know is that it’s not your fault.

Because like the Fight, flight, and the Fawn response, it is an automated brain function. You can’t just ‘decide’ to stop it. Your brain triggers your nervous system and floods your body with chemicals, and from there you have no choice but to ride it out.

However, with the Freeze response, you may find that you are]

Dissociative
That you run away
That you hide from things
You prefer to be isolated
You could even be a bit of a Couch Potato
Sleep is a good way of disconnecting so you may find that you sleep for more than you should
You could also be a bit of a Daydreamer
Critical of others, because you see others as essentially dangerous
To cope with those overwhelming feelings, you may abuse food, alcohol even certain substances.
You might have been diagnosed with Dissociation
Or with a condition called dissociation identity disorder – otherwise known as multiple personality disorder.

 


What to do next

Hope you got a lot from today’s episode. It helps you to understand why you react in certain ways in your life right now. A lot of that is linked to some of the trauma and difficulties we experienced as a child.

The main key message to get from this is that:

  • We learn as a child, in the situations that we are in, to cope and survive the best way we can. We then are fixated on those behaviours as it is normal for us. However, what is learned can be unlearned, you can learn in a different way that is more helpful to you and others.
  • Try not to be too downhearted over some of the personality descriptions I provided here
  • It is important to remember that these are all-natural instincts
  • None of these responses or better or worse than the other as we need all four of them to function well in our lives. But it becomes a problem when we feel that we need to do that all the time and it is a way of life for us.

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