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Let's Talk Trauma: What Is a Trauma Response?

Trauma responses are the ways in which the brain and body cope with traumatic stress so that it can function. Sometimes the trauma brain needs to consolidate energy so that it has the best chance of making it through difficult spots. My first car was a 1984 Toyota Tercel that absolutely could not climb a hill and also run the air conditioning without overheating. Even with the AC off, downshifted and gas pedal to the floor, it could barely make the climb over humble grades. Trauma brains are stronger than my Toyota, but similarly, their modifications help streamline focus to the most essential task of survival.

Short term, the brain’s trauma responses in moments of stress are brilliant. We are better able to cope with adversity and become numb to the pain until the danger has passed. Later, when we are safe, we can process the event. However, when the impact of trauma is so great, or when someone experiences repeat traumas, brains can get “stuck” in a trauma response. Long term, trauma responses keep people disconnected from their thoughts, feelings and sense of self. When the brain can no longer perceive safety after a traumatic event, a whole host of physical and mental health complications ensue.

The four main trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, and fawn

Fight might present as anger, defensiveness, violence or blame. 

Flight might present as anxiety, avoidance, denial, drug or alcohol abuse or other forms of escapism. 

Freeze might present as feeling disconnected or unable to identify one’s needs or feelings, dissociation or flat affect. 

Fawn might present as people-pleasing, lack of boundaries, codependence or enabling an abuser.

Depending on circumstances and personalities, someone might turn to some of these responses on a consistent basis and others not at all. Sometimes in toxic or abusive situations, trauma responses play off of one another. For example, someone whose trauma response is fight may pair up with someone whose trauma response is fawn in order to get their needs met. When flight and freeze pair up, it’s almost certain the big things will never be discussed. Under stress, everyone leans toward at least one type of trauma response, but they can occur in varying degrees, from inconvenient to life-threatening.

A major part of the healing process for trauma survivors involves identifying their own go-to trauma responses so they can understand and appreciate the ways it helped them cope. Because trauma is almost always accompanied by toxic shame, learning to have compassion, not judgement, for the ways we cope is a major step.

Even though trauma is considered a mental health issue, it’s really a whole-body issue. With the help of therapists specially trained in trauma recovery, practices such as EMDR or somatic therapy can be beneficial to find the areas where trauma needs to be released from the body. Through recognizing trauma responses, survivors become better equipped the next time a stressful event sends them through fight, flight, freeze or fawn, so that they can gently bring themselves back into a place of safety and connection. When we look at our trauma responses as areas of growth or healing, we can learn from our own triggers. We can then implement strategies for self-care that can help reduce the duration of a trauma response and arrive sooner to a place of safety in order to process the event in a healthy way. Processing trauma often includes looking directly at fears, feeling the full weight of feelings and allowing grief to run its course. It can also mean challenging our own trauma responses. This is a process that can’t be skipped over or rushed. It often happens on its own timeline, revealing more layers as one goes.

Trauma responses give us needed courage to handle critical moments in our lives and require even more courage to release when they are no longer needed. Those who engage in the work of trauma recovery are some of the strongest, bravest, most amazing people I know. However, trauma recovery looks different for everyone, and not everyone has the circumstances of safety required in order to do deep, healing work. Safety always comes first. Then hopefully, with time and distance, trauma can be processed and released.

Click here to read more of Vicki’s column  “Let’s Talk Trauma: What is Trauma Anyway?”

Lead image courtesy of contributor.