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 and fawn. The latter 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), they can leave a lasting legacy and become a recurrent behaviour.

This article explains ‘What is Fight, Flight, Freeze and Fawn?’. It also explores the link between 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combative or overly defensive (fight); to abruptly remove themselves from the situation (flight); or shut down, become withdrawn and unable to make decisions (freeze).

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.

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. 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.

When you have PTSD, your hypervigilance and heightened arousal can mean you display one or any of these responses frequently. Sometimes within relatively unthreatening situations.

One of the first steps to addressing your PTSD is to accept that these reactions are instinctive and ‘human’. Then, during therapy sessions, you can 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 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 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 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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