During our evolutionary past, our ancestors developed the fight-or-flight response to escape predators and survive dangerous physical conditions.
Although we aren’t threatened by predatory animals in modern times, we use those same evolutionary tools to protect ourselves in high-stress situations. When the brain taps into these tools, we enter states of mind that are different from normal waking consciousness.
This can be understood as the “trauma response.”
In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, we experience events so stressful that our trauma responses become dysregulated. Rather than only using trauma responses to answer threats, we constantly feel threatened, and become unable to exit that state of mind.
Psychologists generally recognize “The Four Fs” as the altered-states that make up the trauma response – fight, flight, freeze and fawn.
By understanding these four states, we can identify them if/when they arise in us, and undergo treatment programs designed to properly regulate them.
When we tap into the fight response, we (usually unconsciously) use aggression to take control of our emotions, our surroundings, and others people so we can protect ourselves from harm. This type of “fight” behavior is associated with angry outbursts, impulsive decision making, pursuit of power, and demands of perfection from others.
If utilized in a healthy way, the fight response lets us to set boundaries with toxic people and habits.
The trauma response of flight doesn’t typically mean physically fleeing a threat.
Instead, flight is characterized by denying or distancing ourselves from emotional pain, traumatic memories and associated feelings (similar to the trauma symptom of avoidance). For example, struggling with perfectionism is often “flight” from the fear of making mistakes and disappointing others.
Other examples of flight response include:
- Panic and anxiety
- Inability to sit still
- Obsessive and/or compulsive tendencies
- Workaholic tendencies
- Constant feelings of fear
When we face a situation so overwhelming that neither fight nor flight can protect us, our brains enter the freeze state. Our brains remain hypervigilant, and our bodies lower our metabolism and temperature.
As a result, we enter a dissociated state, wherein we lose connection to our bodies and our senses of awareness. When in the freeze state, we lose the ability to hold onto memories, making it difficult to recall what was “real” during the traumatic event.
After we come out of the freeze state, we often feel submissive, as though we are on autopilot.
Symptoms of the freeze state look like:
- Frequent zoning out
- Difficulty taking actions
- Difficult making decisions
- Fear of achieving or trying new things
The fawn response is generally associated with complex-PTSD and personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder. It is a long-term defense mechanism rather than a short-term trauma response. Survivors of childhood trauma often “fawn” in order to appease abusers and escape harm, disregarding boundaries and emotions.
We all experience and cope with traumatic events differently, and understanding how we respond to trauma is an essential step in healing.
Let Mira help you during your trauma recovery! Equipped with grounding exercises, journaling, symptom tracking, and more, the Mira app is here to relieve your symptoms. To learn more about trauma and PTSD, check out our blog!