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A Guide to the 4 Main Responses to Trauma

Trauma is a complex experience that has lasting effects on everyone. It’s not always easy to understand why you react the way you do to a specific trauma. Similarly, it can be hard to identify the ways that past trauma continues to influence your thoughts, emotions, and actions. However, understanding these key points is crucial to navigating the aftermath of trauma and building a healthier and adaptive lifestyle.  

That’s why Licensed Clinical Psychologists work hard to understand trauma and trauma responses. By analyzing how trauma affects their clients and general society, Licensed Clinical Psychologists help their patients better understand and process their experiences to recover. Learn more about trauma and how you react to it with this guide to the four main responses to trauma. 

What Is Trauma? 

When many people think of trauma, they think of serious, terrifying, or threatening events. However, it’s important to note that trauma is not the distressing event itself but rather how you react to it. This is why someone can experience trauma even if the traumatic event didn’t happen directly to them. 

Humans are incredibly resilient, but physically or emotionally threatening events can take a toll on us. Trauma refers to the emotional response in the aftermath of these traumatic events, which might include overwhelming thoughts and feelings, lack of closure, fear, paranoia, confusion, anger, rage, helplessness, or feelings of grief or guilt. 

What Is a Trauma Response? 

If trauma is how people experience and respond to a traumatic event, then what exactly is a trauma response? A trauma response is the specific coping technique and a programmed mechanism that you use when facing a traumatic experience.  

Trauma responses first happen in the moment; they are immediate, reflexive reactions that your mind and body follow on instinct. These responses are conditioned and programmed in the person’s psyche as a result of their life experiences and/or upbringing. During a traumatic event, your amygdala—the part of the brain that experiences emotions—goes into overdrive. Your brain relies on short-term survival strategies to help you get through the moment. 

However, trauma responses can linger and continue to define how you react to stressful or uncertain situations. If your brain continues to activate a stress response after the traumatic event is over, it disrupts your sympathetic nervous system and causes a neurological imbalance. Trauma can train your brain to see and feel threats even when you’re in a safe situation. This leads to many of the lasting negative effects of trauma. 

Main Types of Trauma Responses 

Traditional understandings of trauma define two main trauma responses: fight and flight. Do you stand your ground, or do you run?  

Today, Licensed Clinical Psychologists understand more about trauma and have defined four main responses to trauma: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Understanding what these responses look like and how they affect you during and after a traumatic event helps you better navigate trauma and seek the professional help you need from a licensed expert in trauma treatment and recovery. 

The Fight Response 

When faced with a stressful or threatening situation, some people react by standing their ground, defending themselves, and fighting back. These reactions stem from the trauma response of fight. The fight response tells us that we need to act in self-defense, sometimes to the point of overcompensation, to maintain a sense of safety and security.  

Not all fight responses are violent. In fact, a healthy fight response can include asserting yourself, creating solid boundaries, or standing up for yourself verbally. However, the fight response becomes harmful if you become overly aggressive or offensive. For example, if sticking up for yourself in an argument leads to verbally abusing the other party, your fight response has become maladaptive. Unhealthy fight trauma responses can lead to consequences, such as physical altercations, bullying, controlling behaviors, and narcissistic behaviors. 

The Flight Response 

Flight is a common survival instinct; if you can’t win a fight, you should run from it. In less physically violent scenarios, the flight response tells us that the best way to deal with a situation is to escape or avoid it. Like all trauma responses, flight can be either healthy or unhealthy, depending on how it affects your life.  

In healthy scenarios, the flight response allows you to step back from dangerous or stressful situations. This might mean avoiding harmful conversations, leaving unhealthy relationships, and steering clear of a situation you know will become dangerous. The flight response helps you properly assess danger, so you can keep yourself out of it. 

An unhealthy flight response occurs when your avoidant behaviors prevent you from properly dealing with stress and responsibilities. Obsessive tendencies and constant feelings of fear or panic can stem from an unhealthy flight response. Additionally, people with a flight response might turn to maladaptive coping techniques, such as substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, to escape stress or trauma. 

The Freeze Response 

Survival instinct can spur us into action, but it can also cause us to stand still and hope the danger passes. This is the freeze response at its simplest: stop, stand still, and don’t do anything.  

With a healthy freeze response, the instinct to pause allows you to remain present in the moment. Instead of reacting poorly or avoiding the situation, you take the time to analyze where you are, what you’re feeling, and what the best path forward is. A healthy freeze response gives you better awareness and greater control over yourself in stressful moments. 

An unhealthy freeze response, on the other hand, leads to detachment and dissociation from reality. Your mind and body shuts down. In the moment, this can cause you to zone out or struggle to make a decision. Lasting effects of a maladaptive freeze response might include isolation or the need to numb yourself from stress and other stimuli.  

The Fawn Response 

The fawn trauma response revolves around pleasing and pacifying other people as an act of self-preservation. This reaction aims to diffuse a situation and seek approval to avoid danger in the future. 

Healthy fawn responses can be a useful tool in navigating conflict. Traits and skills such as compassion, active listening, problem-solving, and compromising can all stem from a constructive fawn trauma response.  

The fawn response becomes unhealthy if you prioritize other people over your well-being. In these scenarios, the fawn response can lead to codependency, a lack of boundaries, self-destruction, and other behaviors that can keep you in dangerous situations or relationships. 

Trauma Therapy at Blair Wellness Group 

Maladaptive trauma responses disrupt your life, cause insomnia, create self-destructive coping mechanisms including addictions, hinder growth and adversely impact your personal and professional relationships. These will prevent you from healing after a traumatic event. Seeking professional help from a Licensed Clinical Psychologist allows you to identify and overcome the consequences of trauma. 

If you’re looking for trauma therapy in Orange County, let Blair Wellness Group help. Reach out today and let us help you along your journey to better your mental and emotional health. 

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