Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn? Trauma Responses

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Most of us are already familiar with the concept of the ‘fight or flight’ response to perceived danger, namely that when presented with a threat our bodies respond by preparing us to fight against it or run from it. This response served our ancestors if they came face-to-face with a dangerous predator or encountered a similar emergency.

However, there are two other responses to a threat that are less well known. These are the freeze response and the fawn response (Walker M.A.) I will explain what these are in due course.

Walker M.A.. (author of Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving’) refers to these responses to threat as the 4F responses and each of them represents a different response that modern-day humans can display if they have been subjected to sustained and repeated trauma during their childhood.

If we have suffered problematic relationships with our main caregivers during our early life, it is likely that we will grow up to be very suspicious about forming close relationships with others during later life. The conscious or unconscious reasoning behind this is that if we can’t trust and rely upon our parents, whom can we trust and rely upon?

On top of this problem, any relationships we do form, with their inevitable ups and downs, are prone to remind us of similar relationship problems we had in our early lives with our caregivers. This can trigger upsetting and painful flashbacks.

NON-TRAUMATIZED CHILDHOOD VERSUS TRAUMATIZED CHILDHOOD :

Those lucky enough not to have experienced a significantly disrupted childhood only utilize the 4F responses appropriately or, in other words, only when they are faced with real danger. However, those who were exposed to serious, ongoing trauma during childhood, adversely affecting their mental health, frequently become FIXATED with one, or perhaps two, of the 4F responses and these become DEEPLY INGRAINED and REFLEXIVE.

Unlike those who did not experience a traumatic childhood, these individuals will also tend to over-rely on these responses and use them inappropriately, i.e. when there is no serious threat. These responses upon which they have become fixated, learned as a defense mechanism during childhood, tend to remain on a hair-trigger, and are therefore easily activated.

Let’s look at each of the 4F responses to childhood trauma in turn:

1) THE FIGHT TYPE – The individual who has become fixated, due to his childhood experiences, on the ‘fight’ response avoids close relationships with others by frequently becoming enraged and by being overly demanding. It is theorized that he is largely unconsciously driven to behave in this way because he has a deep-rooted need to alienate others so that an intimate relationship cannot develop. The largely unconscious reasoning behind this is that such a relationship would make him intolerably vulnerable because it would carry with it the risk of rejection, similar to the rejection experienced in childhood, which would be psychologically catastrophic for him.

2) THE FLIGHT TYPE – It is theorized that this type of individual, for the same reasons as above, avoids close relationships with others by losing himself in thought (obsession) or activities (compulsions) (for example, by becoming a workaholic) which do not leave him the time to build deep, serious relationships with others. He may, too, be a perfectionist and overachiever motivated by the unconscious belief that this will make him safe. Also, he may be a thrill seeker or ‘adrenaline-junkie, extreme worrier, and micromanager with a ‘Type A’ personality.

3) THE FREEZE TYPE – This type avoids serious relationships with others by not participating with them socially. Often they will become reclusive and increasingly take refuge in fantasies and daydreams.

Freeze types have often suffered from the most severe forms of rejection and abandonment in childhood and the defense mechanisms of fight, flight or fawn, during early life, were untenable.

Often, too, as a child, he was the family scapegoat and identified patient

He may have slept or stayed in bed excessively, or escaped, again to an excessive degree, into online browsing, TV, video games, etc.

At the most extreme, those in the frozen state can become catatonic and may be misleadingly labeled as severely, clinically depressed, or schizophrenic, especially if his traumatized background, which may include having experienced disorganized attachment as an infant, is unknown or otherwise not taken into consideration. Because of this, trauma-informed therapy is vital.

4) THE FAWN TYPE – According to Walker M.A., the fawn type will often go out of their way to help others, perhaps by performing some kind of community service, but without building up emotionally close, or intimate, relationships, due to fear, like the other three types detailed above, of making himself vulnerable to painful rejection which would reawaken intense feelings of distress experienced as a result of the original, highly traumatic childhood rejection.

The fawn response also involves constantly feeling one has to please others as a way of avoiding conflict and those who habitually display the fawn response tend to lack a sense of identity and can feel awkward expressing their own opinions. Because such individuals find it hard to say no they may be exploited in their relationships and take on extra tasks whilst already feeling under severe pressure and so, beneath the surface, develop (unexpressed) feelings of resentment and anger towards their partner.

However, rather than express such anger towards their exploitative partner they may, instead, occasionally displace such anger onto unwitting strangers apropos very little (and then, of course, feel guilty about it). Therapy for those who feel trapped in a habitual pattern of acting according to the fawn response will frequently focus on helping the individual to set clear boundaries within their relationships.

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THE ‘SUBMIT’ AND ‘APPROACH’ DEFENCES:

Some researchers describe five defense strategies an individual may develop depending upon his/her unique, traumatic childhood experiences, rather than the traditionally quoted three (fight, flight, freeze) or four, as described above (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn).

We are already familiar with how individuals may fight, flee, freeze or fawn as an unconsciously learned response to childhood trauma but let’s also briefly consider what has been termed the SUBMIT and APPROACH.

THE SUBMIT DEFENCE

This involves becoming submissive and compliant in an attempt to prevent further harm, this defense might involve going into a state of dissociation.

The ‘submit’ response can often be seen in the natural world when animals ‘play dead’ or ‘play possum.’ The phrase ‘playing possum’ derives from the fact that, in the wild, the opossum is the animal that most frequently uses this defensive tactic and plays dead.

Animals play dead when in severe danger from predators because the majority of predators leave dead animals alone as they associate a dead animal with a rotting and putrifying animal. This feigning of death in the animal world is also sometimes referred to as THANATOSIS and TONIC IMMOBILITY.

THE APPROACH DEFENCE (ALSO KNOWN AS THE SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT DEFENCE)

This often takes the form of a ‘cry for help”, or example, regressing to an infantile state and crying in an attempt to appeal to the protective instincts of others or it may involve trying to ‘win others over’; for example, using charm and humor to try to placate another’s anger.

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REFERENCE:

Walker, P., Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood. Trauma. Publisher Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.  1492871842, 9781492871842 

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).