It’s so much more than just ‘fight or flight’

Trauma: It's more than just 'fight or flight'

It’s common to see references to the basic human instincts of ‘fight or flight’ when faced with a traumatic situation.

In fact, the brain is hardwired to deliver a wider range of reactions, which can be summed up as fight, flight, freeze, fawn and flop. The latter two being the least discussed and talked about.

All of them are a natural outcome of fearful situations or extended periods of abuse. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or C-PTSD, they can leave a lasting legacy and become a recurrent behaviour.

This article explains what Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn and flop are. It also explores the link between PTSD and C-PTSD and fawning behaviour in more detail.

The scientific background

First, a quick overview of the terminology.

The first three are obvious. At times of immense stress, it’s common for people to: become combative or overly defensive (fight); to abruptly remove themselves from the situation (flight); or shut down, become withdrawn and unable to make decisions (freeze). This may manifest as any of the following:

The Fight Trauma response

  • Temper that is very explosive and unpredictable
  • Taunts, mocks, insults or shames
  • “My way or the highway” tendency to need the final say and ignore others perspectives
  • Yells, slams doors, screams, becomes aggressive
  • Easily becomes reactive (can confuse people with their ‘big’ emotions)
  • Always feels as tough they’re being threatened, will protect themselves at any cost
  • Often feels shameful/remorseful post outburst
  • ‘Talking back’ to authority figures

The Flight Trauma response

  • Chronic rushing or ‘always going’
  • Feels uncomfortable (or even panic) when still
  • Energy spent micromanaging people and situations around them
  • Has a history of abruptly ending relationships or phobic of commitment
  • Feels trapped easily
  • Makes plans to avoid any downtime or throws themselves in to work/achievement
  • Often presents as anxiety or panic attacks
  • Being intentionally or unintentionally distracted

The Freeze Trauma response

  • Feeling completely numb, life is ‘pointless’
  • Shutdown (silent treatment, complete avoidance)
  • Hiding out from the world
  • Procrastination or inability to make even small decisions
  • Endless social media scrolling/binge TV watching
  • Confusion over what is real or unreal (or actually happening)
  • Often confused/misdiagnosed with depression
  • Giving up quickly

The fourth response – fawn – refers to when someone actually moves closer to the source of their trauma and tries to placate or win over their aggressor and may manifest itself in the following ways:

The Fawn Trauma response

  • People-pleasing
  • Going along with another person’s perspective, belief’s or values without connecting with your own
  • Dissociating (leaving the body), ‘spacing out’
  • Lets other people make decisions
  • Avoids and situation that could lead to conflict
  • Fears saying ‘no’
  • Overly polite and agreeable
  • Hyper aware of other people’s emotions and needs while betraying your own
  • Relying on others to help solve problems

These are natural reactions triggered by part of our brain. The brain’s limbic system has evolved least since primitive times.

In fact, we share this instinctive behaviour with other animal life! Any creature responds quickly to potential danger by fighting back, running or becoming totally still. Or, to diffuse danger they form a closer attachment to their aggressor (fawn).

Fawning as a response to trauma

To outsiders, the fawn response can mask the distress and damage you’re suffering. If you were really being mistreated, why would you be trying to please the person responsible?

It can also be the response that engenders the greatest sense of confusion and guilt in someone with PTSD or C-PTSD. This person has treated you – or is treating you – badly, Yet, your natural instinct is to attempt to soothe them, instead of distancing yourself or fighting back.

Fawning (or misplaced attachment) is a common reaction to childhood abuse. The victim responds to an abusive parent or some other authority figure by being highly agreeable, pressing down their own needs and their knowledge that the abuse is wrong.

In later life, it can manifest as being highly submissive, looking to others to shape your reactions and relationships and struggling to make sense of yourself or your daily life on your own.

Characteristics of fawning behaviour also include over-dependence on the opinions of others and lacking boundaries. It makes you highly vulnerable to narcissistic people, or anyone who tends to control and manipulate others.

Addressing flight, fight, freeze and fawn responses

Some experts within the field of trauma response add a fifth potential reaction; flop. This is when someone reacts to intensely stressful situations by becoming totally overwhelmed and physically and mentally unresponsive and may manifest itself in the following ways:

The Flop Trauma response

Very similar to ‘freeze’ trauma response, but may also include

  • Total bodily collapse (which might involve blacking out or loss of consciousness)
  • Loss of control over bodily functions
  • Total disorientation
  • Appearing disengaged
  • Showing a lack of emotions
  • Complete submission

When you have PTSD or C-PTSD, symptoms like hypervigilance and heightened arousal, or depressive episodes and hypoarousal, can mean you display any of these responses frequently. Sometimes within relatively unthreatening situations.

One of the first steps to addressing your PTSD and C-PTSD is to accept that these reactions are instinctive and ‘human’. Then, during therapy and treatment sessions, you can also learn to dismantle any negative repercussions, find triggers and learn to manage recurrent episodes of these behaviours.

It’s important to note too, that while choosing your PTSD or C-PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for PTSD and C-PTSD in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

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Treatments for PTSD

It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.