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The 5 Trauma Responses and How to Heal

When faced with a threat or if they feel they are in danger in any way, humans and animals have developed specific survival responses to protect themselves and ensure they are safe. These responses are commonly called the “Four Fs” and include: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn.

More recently, a fifth response known as “Flop,” has been identified as another reaction to a threat. It is essential to understand these responses because they shed light on human behaviour in stressful situations. It is also important to know that a trauma response will look different from person to person, even if they face similar threats.

This article will explain each trauma response and its symptoms and examine how to manage trauma responses in a healthy way. First, let’s discuss what trauma is and some of the sources of trauma.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as an “overwhelming, life-altering event, resulting in pervasive physical, psychological, or emotional distress.”1 Trauma is a stressful life event often accompanied by shock and a survival response. Traumatic events have primary effects on our overall functioning and can destroy an individual’s fundamental assumptions about the safety of the world, the value of self, and the order of society at large.2

Sources of Trauma

Forms of extreme trauma may include, but are not limited to:

  • Domestic violence
  • Childhood abuse
  • Sexual trauma
  • Unexpected death or loss of a loved one
  • Military combat
  • Prolonged physical torture or kidnapping
  • Living through war or a natural disaster
  • Being the victim or witnessing a violent crime
  • See another person injured or dead
  • Being attacked by an animal
  • Being a victim of or witnessing a crime, burglary, or gunshot accident
  • Vehicular or industrial accidents

Less-extreme forms of trauma may include:

  • Divorce or breakup
  • Work or job stress
  • Family conflicts
  • Health issues
  • Financial hardships
  • Moving
  • Traffic jams

Trauma Responses: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, and Flop

Let’s take a closer look at the different trauma responses, how they function, and how they might present.

Fight Trauma Response

The fight response is a physical and psychological instinct to confront a perceived threat directly. This response can be traced to our evolutionary past, where physical confrontations were necessary against predators or enemies. The fight response is the body’s way of preparing to engage in combat or conflict as a means of self-defence. When this response is triggered, the body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can increase heart rates, boost energy levels, and heighten awareness. These triggered responses all better equip someone to handle a threat.

An example of the fight response is to imagine someone walking alone at night and they notice someone following them. Their fight response may be triggered as their body perceives a potential threat against them. In this situation, they might experience an adrenaline rush, increased heart rate, and heightened senses. They may decide to confront the person following them and prepare to defend and protect themselves.

Symptoms of the fight trauma response may include:

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • Muscle tension
  • Dilated pupils
  • Sweating
  • Aggressive behaviour

Flight Trauma Response

The flight response is a survival mechanism that encourages individuals to flee from imminent danger or perceived threats. The instinctual behavioural reaction is a survival mechanism traced back to human evolution. The body’s nervous system prepares to escape to keep itself safe with various bodily changes, such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, pupil dilations, increased sweating, and redirected blood flow to vital organs like the brain and muscles help humans and animals flee potentially harmful situations quickly.

One example of the flight response in action is to visualize that someone is hiking in the woods and they suddenly come across a large and aggressive bear. They decide confronting the bear is too dangerous and decide to escape. Their body will prepare for this by experiencing a huge adrenaline rush and even an increase in their speed and agility. They will feel the urge to run as fast as possible, to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the bear.

Symptoms of the flight trauma response may include:

  • Increased heart rate and breathing rate
  • Tunnel vision
  • Feeling jittery or restless
  • Avoidance behaviour

Freeze Trauma Response

The freeze response occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed by a perceived threat or danger, and their body enters a state of immobility or paralysis. This reaction is often associated with prey animals in the wild, which may freeze to avoid being noticed by predators. In humans, it can be a typical response during traumatic events when the person feels overwhelmed and unable to escape. In this state, the body prepares for a potential attack by reducing movement and trying to become as inconspicuous as possible.

Imagine a person walking alone at night, and as they turn a corner, they notice a group of strangers loitering nearby. The group seems to be acting rowdy and aggressive, and the individual senses something might be off. Their instincts kick in, and the person instinctively freezes. They stop in their tracks, hoping that the group won’t notice them or provoke any further aggression by not moving or drawing attention to themselves. This behaviour is an example of the freeze response.

Symptoms of the freeze trauma response may include:

  • Immobility
  • Reduced heart rate and breathing rate
  • Dissociation
  • Time distortion
  • Difficulty processing information

Fawn Trauma Response

The fawn response is another instinctual response to stress or danger. It occurs when a person tries to appease or please the perceived threat to protect themselves and de-escalate dangerous situations. The fawn response can manifest as people-pleasing behaviour, excessive compliance, and an inability to set health boundaries with others. Those who rely on the fan response may have difficulty saying “no” and might go to great lengths to avoid conflict or maintain the approval of others, even at the expense of their own needs and well-being. The fawn response is a less common reaction to threat, and it often arises in situations where direct confrontation or escape may not be possible or safe. The fawn response can be frequently observed in individuals who have experienced repeated trauma or abuse.

For example, imagine a person who experienced emotional abuse during their childhood; as an adult, they may struggle with the lingering effects of this trauma. So, if they were to receive criticism on their work as an adult, they would go into a fawn response instead of defending themselves or expressing their feelings. Internally, they may think. Things like “I must have done something wrong. I need to fix it right away. I’ll apologize and promise to do better. I just want them to like me and not be angry.”

Symptoms of the fawn trauma response may include:

  • Excessive compliance
  • Difficulty asserting boundaries
  • People-pleasing behaviour
  • Hypervigilance

Flop Trauma Response

The flop response is a relatively newer addition to the survival responses. It is characterized by a state of physical and mental collapse in the face of extreme threat or danger. The flop response is thought to be an evolutionary strategy, primarily observed in certain animals, to discourage predators from attacking what appears to be a lifeless target. In humans, it is typically seen as fainting in response to being paralyzed by fear or being so overwhelmed with stress that they physically collapse.

One example of the flop response is fainting in the presence of needles or blood.

Symptoms of the flop trauma response may include:

  • Complete physical collapse
  • Reduced heart rate and breathing
  • Dissociation
  • Analgesia or a numbing of pain

Understanding the symptoms and underlying psychological mechanisms of the fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop responses provides valuable insights into how humans and animals adapt to perceived threats. These responses are deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history and continue to shape our behaviour under stressful circumstances. Recognizing these survival mechanisms can help us respond more effectively to stress and trauma and develop greater compassion and empathy for ourselves and others in challenging situations.

Healing Modalities for Trauma

If a person has faced significant traumatic events or repetitive small traumas, their past may frequently affect their present. But trauma doesn’t have to hold someone back forever, and there are evidence-based modalities that can help you find healing.

Ketamine-Assisted Healing and Therapy

Ketamine, a dissociative anaesthetic, has gained attention in recent years for its potential therapeutic effects in treating trauma-related disorders and helping individuals step out of the trauma responses listed above.

When combined with trauma therapy, ketamine-assisted therapy shows promise in helping healing and promoting positive treatment outcomes. It is important to note that ketamine is a controlled substance and should only be used under the guidance of a qualified medical professional.

Here’s an overview of how ketamine can aid people in stepping out of a trauma response and moving toward healing with trauma therapy:

  1. Ketamine potentially helps “reset” or disrupt neural patterns associated with trauma, allowing individuals to process their experiences differently.
  2. Ketamine may help individuals temporarily detach from overwhelming emotions and trauma-related memories, creating an opportunity for trauma-focused therapy, during which the person can explore traumatic memories in a safe and controlled environment.
  3. Ketamine may help individuals process trauma-related emotions more effectively and learn healthier coping strategies.
  4. Ketamine-assisted therapy may increase insight into traumatic experiences and associated emotions. This enhanced self-awareness can be beneficial as it allows individuals to understand their trauma response patterns better and work towards healing.
  5. Trauma often leads individuals to engage in avoidance behaviours as a coping mechanism to protect themselves from distressing memories and triggers. Ketamine can temporarily weaken these behaviours, allowing individuals to confront and process their trauma in therapy more directly.
  6. Ketamine-assisted therapy sessions are often conducted in a supportive, controlled, and monitored environment. This can strengthen the therapeutic alliance between the client and therapist, fostering trust and facilitating deeper exploration of trauma-related issues.
  7. Some studies suggest that ketamine may provide rapid relief from symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), making it a promising intervention for individuals who struggle with persistent and debilitating trauma-related symptoms.

It’s easy to see why ketamine has become a valuable tool for treating mental health disorders, but it’s important to note that ketamine alone is not a cure. Providers often combine ketamine-assisted therapy with other evidence-based approaches to improve the likelihood of success.

Ketamine is most commonly delivered in a higher dose using a nasal spray, nebulizer, IV, pill, or transdermal patch. At APN London, each client’s ketamine dosage is catered to their individual needs by their supervising doctor. The goal of ketamine therapy is to help relieve trauma symptoms and quickly get to the root of a client’s mental health issue.

Trauma-Focused Therapy

Trauma therapy can help fix patterns of thoughts and behaviours that seem impossible, whether they trace back to childhood or from more recent experiences.

An assessment with an APN provider can help you determine the best possible treatment protocol. We’re able to provide a full range of therapeutic approaches with our multidisciplinary team of professionals, and we can support you if your needs change over time as you move deeper into trauma healing.

Heal From Trauma With Support

APN London offers in-person therapy, outpatient group therapy, and support groups in addition to other forms of support, like ketamine-assisted therapy, to help you heal from trauma and stress.

Our team of dedicated providers will help you address the barriers to healing so you can move forward and find long-term relief from trauma. Call 0203 984 7699 or complete our confidential online contact form to get started today.

Reference

  • Culpepper, L.D. (2016). The link: Trauma and substance abuse. Journal of Psychology and Clinical Psychiatry, 5(4): 1-3.
  • Herman, Judith Lewis. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence- from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, a Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015.