The 5 trauma responses, and they might not look how you think

Most of us are familiar with fight or flight when it comes to fear, but did you know that there are actually five different responses to be aware of? These are fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop.  


Over time therapists have become more aware of how trauma can impact us, and the different ways in which people respond when triggered. Having knowledge of this can help us understand how we react to certain situations or stressors, and even make the changes that might help us. Before we get into how to recognise each of these individual modes, here’s the science bit.

Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event or events, one which exceeds our ability to cope or lasts for a prolonged period of time. Whatever coping mechanism kicks in at this time to protect us from the stressor or threat, will then show up repeatedly throughout our lives when we perceive a similar danger. It is our mind and brain’s way of protecting us, but sometimes it can be responding to things from our past, and not those in the present, or continuing on for much longer than it needs to.

When the part of our brain which detects danger kicks in, it activates our sympathetic nervous system. This is set up to escape risk, rather than our parasympathetic nervous system which is designed for rest and daily bodily functions. Our senses become heightened as our mind then very quickly tells us what to do in this situation based on past experiences, and here is where the five responses come into play.

We are all individuals and so our responses to trauma will vary, even under these categories, but to give you a sense of what they look like, here are some signs to notice.

1. Fight 

This is the aggressive or violent response, sometimes thought of as attacking an attack.  The perceived threat is met with irritability, anger, raised voice, clenching, and sometimes hitting things. Language can become meaner, defensive and stubborn and blame often gets shifted away from the individual and onto others. When experiencing a fight response, you may feel tight or muscles tensing, heart racing, a clenched jaw, crying in anger, a knotted stomach, and a sense that you cannot control your actions. This is a moving towards action when it comes to coping.

2. Flight 

The opposite of moving towards the threat is flight mode. As the name suggests this response is about running away or removing yourself from the situation. Hormones like adrenaline surge through your body as it prepares to run, and this can leave you fidgety and restless. Your limbs can become difficult to keep still and you may find your eyes darting, you even start to feel trapped. This nervous, heightened energy can lead to excessive exercise or a desire to keep yourself constantly busy, or focussed on achievement, without resting. Those in flight response are often easily distracted and can constantly try to manage their environment. Staying still can actually bring on panic.

3. Freeze

Freeze is sometimes misdiagnosed as depression, as it comes with a sense of giving up, lack of motivation, shutdown and procrastination. While you may still get a pounding heart it will often be slower, and you will feel your body become heavy and numb. Those in freeze response often experience coldness or lower body temperature, along with a loss of ability to communicate or find their words. This is the body's response to feeling trapped by a threat and unable to run or fight, often found in those who experienced childhood trauma. You may also disconnect from your emotions and dissociate, hiding away from the world or losing yourself in TV or social media.

4. Fawn

Often mixed up with people pleasing, the fawn response is also known as the befriending response. Again, this response is often linked to childhood trauma or ongoing abuse and can be confusing to those experiencing it as you ignore your own boundaries and prioritise others, even if they hurt you. Fawn is an attempt to please and appease the threat to protect yourself from attack. You make yourself as easy and agreeable as possible, putting yourself aside and constantly trying to tune in to other people’s needs. You may find yourself spacing out, allowing others to make decisions, going along with other people’s beliefs or opinions, and having real difficulty saying no. This often gets seen as being very submissive, and it can mask the difficulties that you experience with over-politeness.

5. Flop

A flop response is when somebody becomes so overwhelmed by the situation that they are caught in that they can become physically and emotionally unresponsive. It may look like total submission to the threat as the body collapses, meaning that they may faint or blackout. There is no show of emotions as the person dissociates, becoming disengaged and disorientated. They may even lose control of bodily functions. Unfortunately, it is this response that can cause people to be unable to fight back.

As you can see above, responses to trauma don’t always look how we expect and may go on for long periods of time. What we may see as just our ‘normal’ response to the world or a frustrating part of ourselves, may actually be our mind and body responding to threats.  In the case of fawn and flop particularly, the response can cause people to be questioned as to why they ‘let things happen’.

Understanding these subconscious processes will hopefully allow us to see ourselves, and others, with more compassion and empathy. To make the changes that we want moving forward is to recognise what might be driving them. A trauma-informed therapist can help you gain better clarity on your responses and just what you might be trying to protect yourself from.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Liverpool L31 & London NW1
Written by Katie Evans, BA(hons), Dip.Psych.
Liverpool L31 & London NW1

Katie Evans is a private practice therapist and public speaker, specialising in gender, sexuality, relationships and abuse. She is also a survivor of narcissistic abuse in a romantic relationship. Her experiences inform her work and her desire to speak out about developing a greater understanding of the trauma caused,

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