The 4 Different Trauma Responses & How to Recognize Them
The four F words: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn all refer to the different types of trauma responses that people experience. When there is a situation that the body deems unsafe, our limbic system-the part of your brain responsible for memory, emotions, and survival-is enacted. It automatically jumps into action with instinctive protective measures to keep you safe. Here are the four different trauma responses and how they present:
This is an active self-preservation function where you instinctively move toward conflict with anger and aggression. It is a fear state where you confront the threat to stand up and assert yourself. This trauma response can present as but are not limited to anger outbursts, bullying, controlling behavior, explosive behavior, or narcissistic behavior.
This trauma response is characterized by wanting to deny or escape pain and uncomfortable emotions. This corresponds with avoidant behavior. Flight behavior can present as but are not limited to over-working yourself, over-thinking, anxiety/panic/OCD, difficulty sitting still, perfectionism, and avoidance.
This response relates to dissociation and behaviors that are immobilizing. When this is enacted, it often results in actual "freezing"-feeling frozen and unable to move or finding yourself spacing out as if you're detached from reality. You don't feel like you're really there, and you're mentally checked out as you leave out what is happening in your surroundings. It also feels emotionally unsafe to feel what you are feeling in that moment. Freeze behaviors can present as but are not limited to dissociation, isolating, feelings of numbness, and difficulty making decisions.
Fawn refers to engaging in pacifying behaviors by people pleasing. It is characterized by prioritizing others above all else by doing whatever they want to diffuse conflict and get their approval. It may seem like a good thing to be well liked and defer to others to secure safety, but not at the cost of losing yourself. It may even reach a point where you abandon yourself and your needs by aligning so thoroughly with others. Fawn behaviors can present as but are not limited to people pleasing, lack of boundaries, codependency, and lack of identity.
If you experience any of this, be gentle with yourself. Your body is doing what it was made to do...which is to protect you. However, working with a trained therapist can help you to better manage traumatic responses so that you may find healing.
Jillian B. Berfield, Svetlana Goncharenko, Shannon R. Forkus, Ateka A. Contractor, Nicole H. Weiss. (2022) The differential relation of trauma types with negative and positive emotion dysregulation. Anxiety, Stress & Coping 35:4, pages 425-439.