Trauma, whether it’s momentary or long term, affects people in different ways. This probably isn’t news to you.
But did you know four distinct responses can help explain how your experiences show up in your reactions and behavior?
First, there’s fight-or-flight, the one you’re probably most familiar with. In basic terms, when you encounter a threat, you either resist or retaliate, or simply flee.
Maybe you’ve also heard this called fight, flight, or freeze. You can think of the freeze response as something akin to stalling, a temporary pause that gives your mind and body a chance to plan and prepare for your next steps.
But your response to trauma can go beyond fight, flight, or freeze.
The fawn response, a term coined by therapist Pete Walker, describes (often unconscious) behavior that aims to please, appease, and pacify the threat in an effort to keep yourself safe from further harm.
We’ll explain these four trauma responses in depth below, plus offer some background on why they show up and guidance on recognizing (and navigating) your own response.
As you might already know, trauma responses happen naturally.
When your body recognizes a threat, your brain and autonomic nervous system (ANS) react quickly, releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline.
These hormones trigger physical changes that help prepare you to handle a threat, whether it involves actual physical or emotional danger, or perceived harm.
You might, for example:
- argue with a co-worker treating you unfairly
- flee from the path of a car running a red light
- freeze when you hear an unexpected noise in the dark
- keep quiet about how you really feel to avoid starting a fight
It’s also possible to have an overactive trauma response. In a nutshell, this means day-to-day occurrences and events most people don’t find threatening can trigger your go-to stress response, whether that’s fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or a hybrid.
Overactive trauma responses are pretty common among survivors of trauma, particularly those who experienced long-term abuse or neglect.
In fact, an overactive trauma response — getting stuck in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, in other words — may happen as part of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).
How does attachment factor in?
If your caregiver generally took care of your needs and you could count on them for physical and emotional support, you probably grew up with the confidence to trust others and build healthy relationships with friends and partners.
You’ll also, as Walker’s theory suggests, find it mostly possible to weather stress, challenges, and other threats by reaching for the trauma response that works best in a given situation.
Living through repeated abuse, neglect, or other traumatic circumstances in childhood can make it harder to use these responses effectively.
Instead, you might find yourself “stuck” in one mode, coping with conflict and challenges just as you coped in childhood: favoring the response that best served your needs by helping you escape further harm.
This can, without a doubt, further complicate the process of building healthy relationships.
When you’ve experienced emotional abuse or physical neglect, a number of factors can affect the way you respond:
- the type of trauma
- the specific pattern of neglect and abuse
- your role in the family and relationships with other family members
- genetics, including personality traits
Say you want to protect your younger siblings from your parent’s anger and aggression. You don’t want to flee and leave them alone. But you also know you have to take action somehow, which rules out freezing.
This leaves two options:
- fight, or taking action against your parent in some way
- fawn, or doing something to soothe them and keep them calm so they won’t become violent
You might naturally gravitate toward one or the other based on your underlying personality traits, but the situation can also make a difference. If your parent is much bigger and stronger, and you can’t think of any way to subtly take action, you might resort to fawning.
If the response proves effective, it can easily become automatic — in all your relationships, even years down the line.
Now, here’s a closer look at the four main reactions.
This response tends to stem from the unconscious belief that maintaining power and control over others will lead to the acceptance, love, and safety you need but didn’t get in childhood, according to Walker.
This response tends to show up more commonly when your caregivers:
- didn’t provide reasonable and healthy limits
- gave you whatever you asked for
- shamed you
- demonstrated narcissistic rage, bullying, or disgust
While fight often refers to actual physical or verbal aggression, it can encompass any action you take to stand up to a threat or negate it, like:
- making a public social media post after your partner cheats to let everyone know what they did
- shouting at your friend when they accidentally mention something you wanted to keep private
- spreading a rumor about a co-worker who criticized your work
- refusing to speak with your partner for a week when they lose your favorite sunglasses
Walker also notes that a fixed fight response can underlie narcissistic defenses. Indeed, experts recognize childhood abuse as a potential cause of narcissistic personality disorder, though other factors also play a part.
A flight response, in short, is characterized by the desire to escape or deny pain, emotional turmoil, and other distress.
You might find yourself trapped in flight mode if, as a child, escaping your parents helped you dodge most of their unkindness and ease the impact of the abuse you experienced.
Escape might take a literal form:
- staying longer hours at school and friends’ houses
- wandering the neighborhood
Or a more figurative one:
- throwing yourself into your studies to occupy yourself
- creating endless plans for escape
- drowning out arguments with music
As an adult, you might continue to flee challenging or difficult situations by:
- working toward perfection in all aspects of life so no one can criticize or challenge you
- ending relationships when you feel threatened, before the other person can break up with you
- avoiding conflict, or any situation that brings up difficult or painful emotions
- using work, hobbies, or even alcohol and substances to fend off feelings of fear, anxiety, or panic
The freeze response serves as a stalling tactic. You brain presses the “pause” button but remains hypervigilant, waiting and watching carefully until it can determine whether fleeing or fighting offers a better route to safety.
Some experts have pointed out this response actually takes place first, before you decide to flee or fight. And when either action seems less than feasible? You might then “flop” in response to your fright.
What’s the ‘flop’ response?
Your body might go limp. You might even dissociate or faint, which could appear to benefit you in the moment:
- If you pass out, you don’t experience the trauma directly.
- If you dissociate, you might feel removed or mentally disconnected from the situation, or fail to remember it fully.
- If you go limp, the person attacking or abusing you might use less force or even lose interest completely. As a result, you might find it easier to get to safety.
Of course, flopping (also known as tonic immobility) isn’t exactly a good thing, though it does serve some purpose.
It can leave you completely numb, unable to move or call out for help. Plus, while it might seem helpful to lack memories of abuse, those blank spaces can still cause emotional distress.
A long-term freeze response can come to resemble a mask you use to protect yourself when you can’t identify any means of fighting back or escaping.
Behind the mask, you might:
- use fantasy or imagination to escape day-to-day distress
- prefer solitude and avoid close relationships
- hide emotions and feelings
- physically detach from the world through sleep, or by staying in your room or house
- mentally “check out” from situations that feel painful or stressful
Walker identified a fourth trauma response through his experiences helping survivors of childhood abuse and trauma.
This response, which he termed “fawning,” offers an alternate path to safety. You escape harm, in short, by learning to please the person threatening you and keep them happy.
In childhood, this might involve:
- ignoring your own needs to take care of a parent
- making yourself as useful and helpful as possible
- neglecting or failing to develop your own self-identity
- offering praise and admiration, even when they criticize you
You might learn to fawn, for example, to please a narcissistically defended parent, or one whose behavior you couldn’t predict.
Giving up your personal boundaries and limits in childhood may have helped minimize abuse, but this response tends to linger into adulthood, where it often drives codependency or people-pleasing tendencies.
- agree to whatever your partner asks of you, even if you’d rather not
- constantly praise a manager in hope of avoiding criticism or negative feedback
- feel as if you know very little about what you like or enjoy
- avoid sharing your own thoughts or feelings in close relationships for fear of making others angry
- have few, if any, boundaries around your own needs
Trauma doesn’t just affect you in the moment. More often, it has long lasting effects that can disrupt well-being for years to come.
Just one instance of abuse can cause deep pain and trauma. Repeated abuse can take an even more devastating toll, damaging your ability to form healthy friendships and relationships, not to mention your physical and mental health.
But you can work through trauma and minimize its impact on your life.
Recognizing your trauma response is a great place to start. Just keep in mind, though, that your response may not fall neatly into one of these four categories.
As Walker’s theory explains, most people navigating long-term trauma drift toward more of a hybrid response, such as fawn-flight or flight-freeze.
Therapy is often key
While help from loved ones can always make a difference for trauma and abuse recovery, most people need a little more support. In fact, PTSD and C-PTSD are recognized mental health conditions that generally don’t improve without professional support.
With guidance from a mental health professional, you can:
- challenge and break out of a fixed trauma response
- learn to access more effective responses when facing actual threats
- begin healing emotional pain
- learn to establish healthy boundaries
- reconnect with your sense of self
Your trauma response may be a relic of a painful childhood, but it’s not set in stone.
Support from a trained therapist can go a long way toward helping you address deep-seated effects of past trauma, along with any mental health symptoms you experience as a result.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.