Why Your Anxiety Might Be Trauma-Related: The Four Trauma Responses, Signs and Symptoms

Low self-esteem - Centres for Health and Healing

You may have noticed the term “trauma” creeping up in various places, whether on your newsfeed, your local library, or during a discussion with friends.

Perhaps you have personal experiences of trauma, and the term comes as second nature to you.

Either way, trauma is a much more commonly used term than it was years or even decades ago.

Of course, not every negative feeling (or symptom) you experience is because of trauma.

However, studies show that many mental (and even physical) health conditions can be traced back to adverse life events.

Let’s explore the meaning of trauma in more detail.

What is trauma?

A traumatic event is any experience that threatens your safety (or someone you know). These events may be life-threatening or cause severe danger to you or a loved one.

Trauma may also be described as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience.

Everyone perceives and experiences trauma differently.

How we conceptualise and process deeply disturbing events will vary from person to person.

And comparing your reactions to others is neither fair nor helpful -therefore, you must show yourself compassion and kindness if you hope to find recovery in the future.

Examples of traumatic events

You might notice changes in your thinking or behaviour after something frightening or traumatic happens.

For example, something that never bothered you before may now cause an alarming response where you are jumpy, on edge or easily startled.

Physical and emotional reactions to trauma

Trauma creates various physical, emotional and psychological changes in the brain and body.

These changes may be temporary or long-lasting and can cause significant dysfunction that may impair a person’s ability to perform as they ordinarily would.

Examples 

sad-child-with-arguing-parents

Below are examples of traumatic events that may cause various trauma responses and symptoms.

  • Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Being the victim of a natural disaster – such as a fire or flood
  • Exposure to violence – for example, if you witness a physical assault or if you are the one being attacked.
  • Exposure to images – i.e., watching the news or reading a newspaper containing upsetting or disturbing images or reports.
  • Being involved in a car accident
  • Domestic violence or intimate partner violence
  • The sudden death of a loved one
  • Living with a terminal illness

Trauma reactions

Traumatic events can disturb us way beyond our knowledge or awareness.

After something awful happens, we may notice changes in our perception, thinking and everyday reactions.

Heightened arousal

As a result of experiencing a traumatic event, people, objects, places or situations that never bothered you previously may feel jarring – as a result; you may experience anxiety, anger, or fear post-trauma.

There is a valid reason for such responses, which we will now explore.

Common reactions to trauma

Did you know several specific trauma responses can help explain why trauma survivors react or behave in a particular way?

These common reactions include:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn

We will explore the four trauma responses in more detail shortly, but first, let’s look at the basics.

Freeze

Suppose you notice changes in your thinking or behaviour after something traumatic happens.

You may feel helpless in situations that once felt empowering, or perhaps you clam up or “freeze” instead of taking action over something.

Mental health professionals refer to this as the “freeze response”.

Fight

Another example of a trauma response is the innate urge to fight- for instance, you may experience intense anger over something casual or minor. Psychologists call this the โ€˜โ€™fight response.โ€™โ€™

Flee

With the flee response, instead of sticking around, you may run from a problematic situation rather than attempting to resolve it.

An example of this is when an individual ends a meaningful relationship before the other person has the chance to do the same.

These reactions are impulsive and defensive and are often fueled by traumatic events that haven’t been safely acknowledged or processed.

But that’s not all.

Our trauma reactions often extend beyond fight, flight or freeze – there’s also the fourth trauma response mental health professionals call “fawn.”

Fawn

Peter Walker initially coined Fawn to describe a trauma response that points to people-pleasing.

Although various factors are involved in the fawn response, the most evident symptom is when a person engages in people-pleasing behaviours.

Walker describes the fawn response as “a response to a threat by becoming more appealing to the threat.”

Fawning involves “appeasing strategies” and can include behaviours such as:

  • Codependency
  • People-pleasing
  • Having a weak sense of boundaries (or none at all)

Trauma symptoms

When you encounter a traumatic event or series of traumatic experiences, you may notice shifts in your behaviour, mood or thinking.

All this can affect how you respond to everyday situations and may even impact your relationships. So, you must be aware of the symptoms.

Signs and symptoms

Anxiety disorder up close

Trauma symptoms vary between people; again, you mustn’t compare your responses to others.

However, it’s common for people to experience the following after a traumatic event:

  • Intense stress or anxiety
  • Feeling jumpy, on edge or hypervigilant
  • Emotional numbness – you may feel numb or be in a state of shock
  • Feeling highly emotional or sad
  • Avoiding specific places, people or situations in case something terrible happens
  • Being overly protective or concerned about family members or those you care about
  • Mood swings
  • Exhaustion or fatigue

The above responses are common after experiencing a traumatic event; for many people, these symptoms usually subside after several weeks.

In our experience, such symptoms can be part of the healing process, although many require support and therapeutic intervention to help them along the way.

If you think you are experiencing trauma symptoms, reaching out for help and support is the recommended next step. Speak to a Centres for Health and Healing specialist for more information.

In the meantime, let’s look at the four trauma responses in more detail.

The fight response

When someone engages in the fight response, it often signifies an unhealed wound (likely from the person’s deep past).

People with traumatic or chaotic childhoods often have an unconscious belief that asserting authority or control over others will help them receive the warmth, love and acceptance that was denied to them in their formative years.

Those engaging in the fight response may present as physically or verbally aggressive when they feel threatened or harmed in some way. 

In addition, the person adopting a fight response may:

  • Yell and scream at a partner or friend over casual remarks or comments
  • Use the silent treatment for days or weeks after a disagreement with a family member, friend or spouse
  • Participate in gossip or spread rumours about a colleague or friend who slighted or criticised them

Some research shows the fight response may be linked to various narcissistic tendencies often displayed by those with narcissistic personality disorder.

All this is not surprising since many personality disorders are often linked to childhood abuse or trauma.

The flight response

young daughter not listening to mother

The aim for those engaging in the flight response is to escape or avoid distress or pain.

Denial of pain or turmoil is deeply-rooted within the flight response; many children learn that escaping or fleeing dangerous situations, such as a violent parent, helped them survive.

As a result, the child-turned-adult uses the flight response in various other situations, even when there is no apparent harm or threat to the individual’s life.

In adulthood, people often continue using the different flight responses (consciously or unconsciously), which may show up as:

  • Avoidance of conflict – the person may avoid uncomfortable conversations, relationship problems or work conflict – anything that induces uncomfortable or painful emotions.
  • Distraction – may involve substance abuse (such as drugs or alcohol) to numb troubling thoughts and feelings and overachieving such as in sports, hobbies and work.
  • Perfectionism – perfectionism is a well-known trauma response, and many people with childhood trauma often become perfectionists in adulthood to avoid criticism or ridicule.

The freeze response

Freeze responses occur when individuals cannot escape or defend themselves against severe threats or harm.

When people engage in the freeze response, it is because they cannot run away or escape something (or someone) harmful or dangerous.

Mental health conditions such as panic attacks, phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders are all associated with the freeze response.

The freeze response may be viewed as a type of paralysis, where the person becomes frozen in a particular situation or circumstance. In addition, the freeze response can easily be triggered even in innocuous cases when no harm is present.

Those who cannot protect themselves against danger for whatever reason often engage in the freeze response to survive whatever is happening in their environment.

This past trauma can show up as:

  • Concealing your true feelings and emotions
  • Avoidance of relationships and preferring to be alone
  • Engaging in fantasies to avoid or escape daily worries or stress
  • Numbing yourself or detaching from situations that trigger pain or discomfort

The fawn response

As touched on earlier, fawning is typically associated with people-pleasing behaviours.

A child may engage in a fawn response when dealing with a violent or angry parent – here; children may offer kind or soothing remarks to a volatile caregiver to eliminate or reduce potential threat or harm.

In adulthood, this trauma response may be evident in those who have trouble setting boundaries or suffer from codependency. 

If you notice you constantly put others’ needs before your own, agree to things you are not happy with to keep the peace or avoid sharing your thoughts and feelings with others out of shame, fear or embarrassment, there’s a chance you might be engaging in the fawn response.

Why therapy is so important

Some manifestations of trauma may be a signal of mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder).

Depending on the severity of your trauma and other factors, various symptoms are expected and usually get better without treatment.

However, many trauma survivors require therapy to help them feel better and experience relief from their symptoms.

Trauma can cause much disruption and havoc to a person’s life – and conditions such as PTSD (or C-PTSD) typically require treatment since these disorders do not go away on their own.

Trauma treatment options

Many trauma treatments are available to those who need them.

Therapy options for trauma-related conditions include psychotherapy treatments such as EMDR (eye movement desensitisation reprocessing), cognitive behavioural therapies, exposure therapies, and for those with co-occurring disorders, substance abuse programs.

Traumatic events, as disturbing as they can be, do not define you or your future.

These experiences might be a part of your past, but they do not determine all the wonderful possibilities that lie ahead.

With proper treatment and support, you can learn to reframe your experiences and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that may have helped you cope as a child but no longer serve you as an adult.

The right support from a therapist can help you do just that.

Speak to a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing to kick-start your journey to recovery and begin living the life you deserve.

Helpful resources

  1. Trauma – reaction and recovery, Better Health Channel
  2. The Beginners Guide to Trauma Responses, Healthline, Crystal Raypole, August 26, 2021
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