Over millennia, evolution has provided humans with a complex physiological architecture that responds to danger. The limbic system – the part of the brain involved in behavioural and emotional responses, particularly in regards to survival – can direct us to fight, flee, freeze or fawn. These instinctive protective measures kick us from a baseline of relative calm and security into an actively alert and hyper-vigilant state. But what happens when it seems as though the limbic system has no off-switch? When we’re constantly agitated and alert? This over-stimulation of the limbic system, and an overreliance on one or two survival instincts, may be a result of past or ongoing traumatic experiences, also known as the ‘trauma response’.
What is the trauma response?
The trauma response is the way we cope with traumatic experiences. The initial trauma may be a little ‘t’ or a big ‘T’, it may be an isolated event or an accumulation of emotional injuries, but it is how we respond to and process this trauma that will influence our day-to-day psychological wellbeing and overall functioning.
The four Fs of trauma
The ‘four Fs of trauma’ are automatic reactions and coping mechanisms activated when we are faced with a triggering, stressful or traumatic event. It is important to note that these methods can be ‘healthy’ in helping us to avoid emotional or physical harm, particularly when we can move fluidly between the methods. It is when we get stuck in using just one or two responses to every perceived threat – always fighting or always fleeing, for instance – that can establish an adverse and constantly heightened emotional state, even when threats aren’t present.
The fight response is one of the better-known responses to fear, stress or pain. It can be expressed in a healthy way by having courage, setting appropriate boundaries, being assertive and protecting yourself. Unhealthy expressions of this trauma response include an unstable temper, bursts of anger, bullying, feelings of entitlement, or demanding perfection from others.
A healthy flight response could involve disengaging from a situation or conversation (or even relationship) that is deemed harmful. It involves properly assessing the danger and leaving when necessary. When previous trauma is involved, an unhealthy flight response may lead to avoiding all conflict, no matter how minor. It can also manifest in high anxiety, shunning responsibilities or burying oneself in work or activities in order to avoid sitting with one’s emotions.
A healthy freeze response is mindful – it allows you to slow down and appraise a situation carefully before reacting. The unhealthy, or trauma-based, version of the freeze response involves disassociation and avoidance of decision-making. The freeze response can be a physical feeling of numbness or disconnection from reality and/or an emotional shutting down and hiding from others.
The fawn response – less well-known, perhaps, than the other three Fs – involves people-pleasing to avoid conflict. This is often a response developed in childhood trauma, and can sometimes be seen in individuals carrying the cultural trauma of the mother wound. As well as engaging in pacifying behaviours, the fawn response can manifest in codependent relationships, conflict avoidance, a lack of boundaries and a loss of a sense of self. Note that a healthy fawning response that avoids self-sabotage can facilitate active listening, compromise and compassion for others.
Returning to a baseline of calm
Heightened fight, flee, freeze or fawn responses may occur for numerous reasons and can be due to unresolved past or ongoing trauma. It is important to remember that these responses are evolutionary survival mechanisms designed to help us avoid harm, but they can become harmful patterns in and of themselves. If you identify with these trauma responses, it is possible to develop techniques to counter unhealthy versions of the four Fs. Methods to calm the stress response may include yoga, visualisation, meditation, physical activity and social support. There are also effective therapy tools to help you identify patterns that are no longer serving you and to support you in carving out a new way to act and react in triggering situations.
Manage your trauma response with the help of a supportive Geelong psychologist
Therapists at Happy Minds Psychology have undergone specialist training to support you through your trauma counselling. Using evidence-based methods, including cognitive-processing therapy, we can work to understand your current responses, equip you with new ways of facing conflict, and help you to create sustainable positive change. Our supportive counselling sessions are available face-to-face in our Ocean Grove office or via Telehealth across Australia. For appointments, contact the Happy Minds team on 📞 0431 666 050, fill out our contact form to request a callback or email us at [email protected].