What are the four main trauma responses

Main trauma responses - Centres for Health and Healing

One of the most valid terms when discussing psychological trauma and something you may often read about in articles and medical abstracts is the word ‘stuck.’

Another relevant term is ‘stored,’ which refers to the trauma caused by a traumatic experience that hibernates or becomes ‘stuck’ in the body and psyche.

What is trauma?

Emotional trauma gets described as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, such as the sudden death of a loved one or a young child getting abducted or going missing.

Trauma can be so overwhelming that it can diminish a person’s ability to cope, which can cause a range of unpleasant feelings and emotions, such as: 

Statistics

Trauma is a pervasive problem throughout the world. 

For example, the World Health Organisation surveyed trauma and found that at least a third of the 125,000 people surveyed across 26 different countries had encountered one traumatic experience.

Such figures increased by around 70% when the group was limited to those with specific mental disorders identified by the fifth edition diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM – 5).

Causes

Many different events can trigger a traumatic response, such as:

  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Being the victim of a natural disaster
  • Being a war veteran
  • Domestic violence
  • Developmental trauma, such as child neglect and child abuse
  • Betrayal
  • The sudden loss of a loved one or witnessing a loved ones’ long-term illness
  • Job loss

Post – traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder treatment - Centres for Health and Healing

Trauma need not get triggered by profound events such as those mentioned above; it can also get induced by other events or situations where a person feels unable to cope.

Inherently, trauma is a subjective experience that is unique to each individual.

Therefore, there are no absolutes or ways to predict what will or won’t trigger a traumatic response within a person.

Symptoms of trauma

Those experiencing symptoms of trauma are likely to have developed the mental health condition PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

PTSD is rife in specific subsets of the population who have experienced a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events. 

Symptoms of PTSD usually begin at least one month after a traumatic event; however, symptoms of PTSD may not appear for years after the event.

PTSD symptoms can be so severe that they impact a person’s daily functioning and can cause significant problems in relationships, work, and social life.

Symptoms

PTSD symptoms get grouped into four types; avoidance, intrusive memories, adverse changes in mood and thinking, and negative changes in physical and emotional responses.

Symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks about the event (can feel like reliving the experience all over again)
  • Nightmares
  • Recurrent, unwanted memories that are related to the event 
  • Profound emotional distress or physical responses to something that reminds you of the event
  • Avoiding places or people that remind you of the event (avoidance)
  • Negative thinking patterns about yourself and other people
  • Feeling detached from friends and family
  • Issues with concentration
  • Lack of interest in activities and hobbies you once enjoyed
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Being easily startled
  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviour, such as drug or alcohol abuse 

The four primary trauma responses (The Four F’s)

Primary trauma responses - Centres for Health and Healing

Understanding how trauma works can be an effective way to know how you respond to trauma and which trauma responses get attributed to your personal experience.

Trauma experts have identified four primary trauma responses, often referred to as ‘the four f’s.’ 

They include:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

Reframing traumatic experiences

Once people understand their trauma triggers and which of the trauma responses they engage in when triggered, they get better positioned to respond effectively and can conceptualise these responses into patterns that work for them.

Trauma doesn’t have to be something a person lives with forever. 

Essentially, people do not have to default to unhealthy trauma responses that keep them stuck.

The four F’s explained.

As mentioned earlier, the four primary trauma responses include:

  • The flight response – getting away from an event or situation as quickly as possible.
  • The fight response – describes an act of self – preservation.
  • The freeze response – when a person pauses instead of running.
  • The fawn response is keeping a person happy to avoid harm or neutralise the threat.

How the different trauma responses manifest

According to experts, trauma can show up as either healthy or unhealthy patterns of thinking or behaviour.

For example, an unhealthy flight response may show up as avoiding confrontation through distraction such as substance abuse or becoming a workaholic.

On the flip side, a healthy flight response might be when an individual leaves a stressful job or ends a toxic relationship.

Destructive trauma responses

  • Destructive fight responses can manifest as narcissistic characteristics, controlling behaviours, bullying, expecting perfection from themselves and others, and feelings of entitlement. 
  • Destructive flight responses include panic, needing to stay busy or distracted all the time, constant feelings of fear, workaholic tendencies, and an inability to remain still. 
  • Destructive freeze responses involve isolation, zoning out, indecision, difficulty completing tasks, fear of change or trying new things, and dissociation.
  • Destructive fawn responses are staying in violent or dangerous relationships, severe people-pleasing, loss of self, and codependent relationships.

Healthy trauma responses

On the other hand, healthy trauma responses can help regulate a person’s mood or behaviour, encouraging them to be more aware and present with their trauma and respond to triggers effectively.

Such responses may include one of the trauma responses or a combination, i.e., a person may have unhealthy fight and flight responses simultaneously or engage in single trauma responses.

Becoming ‘unstuck’

As previously mentioned, the vital challenge in living with and treating trauma is understanding how it hibernates or gets stuck in a person’s mind and body.

The memories created during the traumatic climate do not always have the opportunity to be stored or processed correctly.

Moreover, there are many variables involved with the above.

For example, the significance of trauma, a person’s trauma responses and how these get managed, and, crucially, the support someone receives during and after a traumatic experience.

Sudden response

When trauma gets stored or becomes trapped, the individual is likely to experience a sudden response like a disturbing flashback related to the event or reliving the experience through terrible memories or nightmares.

Such symptoms can occur suddenly and without warning. 

The person may become anxious or distressed in the above scenario as trauma symptoms appear out of nowhere.

Indeed, when a person understands what triggers trauma and what type of trauma responses they find themselves engaging in, they are in a much better position to manage these responses whenever they come about.

Managing trauma

Trauma experts have reported several ways for people to manage their trauma more effectively. They include:

  • Understanding the emotional warning signs
  • Understanding the physical warning signs 
  • Understanding the behavioural warning signs
  • Learning which of the four F’s a person fits into, or what combination, they are in

Other ways to manage trauma

Another way for people to manage their trauma is to work out any patterns they may have developed to cope with trauma symptoms, such as substance abuse or workaholism.

Key questions to consider might be how a person’s responses serve them in their relationships and life in general?

Do they need to modify such responses, and where do these trauma responses originate?

Treatment

Trauma treatment - Centres for Health and Healing

Trauma treatment is another option for those living with trauma.

Such treatments can help release any trapped trauma, thus releasing the energy stored in the memories’ original climate from the body.

Effective trauma treatments include:

Getting in touch

If you would like to hear more about our trauma treatment programs, please contact a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing who can help.

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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