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.. 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 defence 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 immersing himself in activities (for example, by becoming a workaholic) which do not leave him the time to build deep, serious relationships with others.
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.
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.
THE ‘SUBMIT’ AND ‘APPROACH’ DEFENCES:
Some researchers describe five defence 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 defence might involve going into a state of dissociation.
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 humour to try to placate another’s anger.
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).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.