What are the 4 Trauma Responses – And How to Cope
Over the years, our brains have adapted to protect us from life-threatening situations. We have learned how to fight off predators, flee from dangerous situations, and freeze until a threat has passed us by.
But the same systems that used to protect us from predators in the wild are now protecting us from the dangers of our modern world. While our bodies might still feel the heart-pounding urge to run away from threats, it’s not as helpful when that threat comes in the form of a bad breakup or an intimidating work email.
Here at KMA, we understand that modern-day threats like a fight with a friend can feel as scary as being chased by a wild animal. We also know that you probably want to understand why your body is reacting this way, and how to cope with these feelings.
This article will take you through all four trauma responses, show you some signs to recognize when you’re experiencing them, and tell you about some of the ways that you can cope with them.
What Triggers a Trauma Response?
Before we get into the specifics of the four trauma responses, it can be helpful to know what triggers them.
Trauma responses can be caused by any form of a traumatic event. This can include large-scale events like a natural disaster or smaller personal events like a difficult breakup.
When your nervous system shuts down, it can look like one of the four trauma responses. These responses can happen at the exact moment of the traumatic event, or be triggered again when something reminds you of the event.
While we’ve often heard the term “fight or flight,” there are also two lesser-known trauma responses: the freeze response and the fawn response. We’ll dive into all four trauma responses in detail below.
1. The Fight Response
The Fight Response can occur when we feel the need to protect or defend ourselves.
Instead of avoiding a threat, we are ready to face it head-on. While normal amounts of assertiveness and self-advocacy are healthy, a fight response takes these feelings to the extreme when we feel threatened.
Signs you’re experiencing a Fight Response can include:
- Feeling angry
- Yelling or lashing out
- Extreme tension in your body
- Physical aggression or throwing things
When dealing with a fight response, it can be helpful to remove yourself from the situation and give your body a chance to calm down.
Figuring out alternative ways to move the “fight” energy through your body, such as through exercise, can be beneficial.
2. The Flight Response
The Flight Response is the opposite of the Fight Response – instead of sticking around in a situation to defend ourselves, we want to get out of it as quickly as we can.
While this may look like refusing to continue a conversation where you feel threatened, it can also take the form of isolating yourself and avoiding your emotions.
Signs you’re experiencing a Flight Response can include:
- Staying busy to avoid difficult feelings
- Inability to tolerate conflict in a conversation
- Immediately leaving situations where you feel uncomfortable
When dealing with a flight response, it may help to do something that reminds you that you are safe in your body. You may want to try a meditation or grounding exercise to help you stay focused on the present moment.
3. The Freeze Response
The Freeze Response takes the feelings of Flight one step further – when it’s not enough to physically remove yourself from the situation, you may feel a deeper urge to disconnect from the emotions that arise, too.
The Freeze Response can make you feel “tuned out,” and leave you wanting to disconnect completely from your environment. For this reason, the Freeze Response can also be viewed as going emotionally numb to a situation.
Signs you’re experiencing a Freeze Response can include:
- Feeling a sense of dread
- Feeling physically cold or numb
- Holding your breath or forgetting to breathe
- Feeling physically and emotionally disconnected from your surroundings
If you’re experiencing a Freeze Response, it can be helpful to connect back into your body.
4. The Fawn Response
The fourth and final response is the Fawn Response. Unlike the other three responses, this response is move proactive: you may try to diffuse situations before they even become a threat.
This can take the form of people-pleasing behaviours, and attempting to stop a situation before it has the chance to grow into a conflict.
Although this response may make you feel safe in the moment, it’s not sustainable to always anticipate the needs of other people, and place them before your own.
Signs you’re experiencing a Fawn Response can include:
- Avoiding conflict at the expense of your own needs
- Apologizing for everything (even when you’re not at fault)
- Prioritizing other people’s feelings to receive their approval
- Prioritizing other people’s feelings when asked about your own emotions
If you’re experiencing a Fawn Response, it’s helpful to be extra compassionate to yourself. Try to recognize situations where you’re apologizing for things that aren’t your fault, and think about what you can say instead of “sorry.”
Establishing situations where you could benefit from putting more boundaries in place can also be a great place to start.
Next Steps for Coping with Trauma Responses
After reading this article, you now have an understanding of the four trauma responses, signs you may be experiencing a trauma response, and how to cope with these feelings.
Although it can be empowering to learn how to heal ourselves on our own, we all need some extra help sometimes.
Our team of therapists at KMA is experienced in trauma counselling. We can help you discover more about the trauma responses you’re experiencing and get to the root of what may be causing them.
Register for an introductory appointment using the form below, or connect with our team for more information.
If you’re not yet ready to book an introductory appointment, you can read these articles for more information: