Understanding what trauma responses are and how they affect your brain can help you spot these behaviors in yourself and others. After you understand these responses better, you can look for ways to cope with them. Coping with traumatic responses takes time and patience. It’s a good idea to make sure you have reasonable expectations for yourself.
A traumatic response is a parasympathetic nervous system response. Basically, this means we have little control over how our brains respond to a traumatic event. You have control over how you cope with the response, though. So let’s look at what a trauma response is and what it can look like.
What Is a Trauma Response?
Trauma response is our body’s emotional reaction to a traumatic event. Traumatic events can include physical or sexual assaults. They can also include natural disasters. These traumatic events activate our body’s survival mode.
Depending on the person and the event, this response can look very different. Long-term reactions to trauma might include vacillating emotions, flashbacks, and physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.
These responses aren’t inherently bad. A healthy response allows us to cope with stressful situations. Unhealthy responses can cause our bodies to misuse this. Whenever we encounter stress, it’s important for us to act for self-preservation. But when trauma influences these responses, the fear state can react during a day-to-day conflict.
The 4 Trauma Responses
There are four basic ways our bodies react to trauma. In psychology, these are sometimes called the 4 Fs of trauma. The 4 Fs of trauma are:
The fight response happens when our brains perceive a threat. It’s an attempt to gain power over the threat and maintain control of our situation. This often looks like physical attacks, such as punching, slapping, or kicking. Other ways the fight response presents include yelling or crying.
If the person experiencing the fight response is attempting to control it, rather than having already lost control, it can look different. It might feel like a knot in your stomach. Your shoulders might rise closer to your ears, or you might clench your jaw or clench your hands into fists.
In some dangerous situations, our brain responds with avoidant behavior. This is what we call the flight response. It happens if we see a means of escaping a threat or avoiding conflict. It might look like physically running away or just avoiding social interaction altogether.
We sometimes internalize our flight response. This might look like avoiding feelings that make you uncomfortable. If you feel like you constantly need to stay busy, this might be your body’s flight response taking control.
A healthy freeze response is your brain’s attempt to assess the situation. This defense mechanism, in an unhealthy response, often completely immobilizes someone. It can cause them to literally “freeze.” This response might also look like dissociation.
Dissociation is a mental state where the person feels they’re in a haze. We also recognize this as being “checked out.” This is the brain’s attempt to regulate emotions. It means the brain is in a state of overwhelm, and to keep itself safe, it activates a neurological shutdown.
Fawning is essentially people-pleasing behavior. Sometimes we call this pacifying. This fear response is all about diffusing conflict, regardless of the cost. It leads to approval seeking, abandoning your own wants and needs, and sometimes losing yourself to another person.
This is the brain’s complete abandonment of the self. Someone living in a fawn fear response disregards their bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts. This might also look like responding to a question like, “How are you?” by talking about how another person is while only briefly addressing your own emotions.
Resolving trauma takes time, patience, and self-compassion. The help of a professional therapist can be instrumental in recovery. If you feel that you’re suffering from past trauma or have symptoms of mental illness, reach out for help.