Traumatic experiences leave a mark on us. We survive the experience, but they leave their emotional imprint on us, they shape how we view the world and how we relate to it. But this does not necessarily have to be a bad thing. Coping mechanisms can be either healthy or unhealthy. Here we explain the psychology of trauma responses and how they can be either helpful or harmful.
Traumatic experiences and traumaBefore exploring the different types of trauma responses, let’s clarify what trauma is. Trauma is not only the exposure to a traumatic event; it encompasses the emotional experience that surrounds the traumatic event. Usually, this emotional experience is overwhelming and leaves many unanswered, lingering questions. We might feel strongly about the event, we might feel responsible or ashamed for what happened.
Trauma can be caused by experiences such as car accidents, violent assaults, or physical, sexual and emotional abuse. However, it can also arise from something less obvious, such as betrayal, embarrassment, bullying, grief, divorce or simply the absence of emotional support.
What is a trauma response?Trauma response is the way we cope with traumatic experiences. We cope with traumatic experiences in many ways, and each one of us selects the way that fits best with our needs. The four types of mechanisms we use to cope with traumatic experiences are fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
Are trauma responses always maladaptive?You might be thinking that all trauma responses are maladaptive (that is, dysfunctional). This is not always the case. Trauma responses do not necessarily have to be unhealthy or maladaptive. For example, let’s say that you were bullied during your childhood. Back then, you figured out that acting as a bully yourself was the only way you could use to defend yourself as there was nobody around you to protect or support you. You saw this as the best possible solution you could take in order to survive.
Now let’s say that you have grown up, and as an adult you no longer are in a threatening, unsupportive environment. However, you continue acting like a bully. You have this fear that people are not to be trusted, that they are going to attack, betray or shame you. So, you decide to bully them. This is when the trauma response becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism. You continue exhibiting the trauma response even though you do not need it anymore. This response stems from your fear that people are going to hurt you. Even though it is not necessarily the current reality, you keep on believing it, even when people are nice to you, which ends up hurting your relationships.
The four types of trauma responsesSo, trauma responses can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the situation. Now, let’s delve into the different types of trauma responses and how they can manifest in an adaptive or maladaptive way.
The fight responseThe trauma response of fight is when we figure out that in order to survive, we need to fight back. This trauma response stems from the belief that in order to get what you need and want, you need to fight, to try a lot and sometimes overcompensate in order to provide yourself with the safety and the security that you wanted to feel in your past.
The healthy version of the fight response is when you are assertive, when you set healthy boundaries with others, when you protect yourself, when you lead others and when you find the courage to make things happen.
However, the maladaptive version of this coping mechanism is when you overcompensate and overdo your fight response. For example, when you are overaggressive (not assertive but overly aggressive) and when you attack or bully people. When you resort to workaholism, become a perfectionist, a narcissist, or feel entitled and think that everybody should help or support you. A person with a maladaptive fight response might end up claiming energy and time from others without caring about how they feel.
The flight responseThe trauma response of flight refers to escaping and avoiding. This coping mechanism probably started when you wanted to avoid some uncomfortable conversations or feelings or something that was dangerous around you. The healthy version of this coping mechanism is when you take a break from overly upset people, when you disengage from difficult conversations for some time or when you remove yourself from relationships that are not healthy.
In contrast, the unhealthy version of the flight response is when you escape your responsibilities, when you seek solace in alcohol, when you turn to drugs, or when you avoid stepping out of your comfort zone because of fear.
The freeze responseThe third coping mechanism is to freeze. The freeze response is when we stop, we stand still, and we don’t do anything. We don’t move backwards, and we don’t move forward. The freeze response is where we numb our feelings and our needs.
The healthy version of the freeze response is mindfulness. In the freeze response, we don’t do anything, we stay still, and we remain in the present moment. And this mindful state can be quite beneficial: sometimes we are busy going back and forth, thinking about the future or the past, but practising mindfulness is a healthy way to stay in the present moment and admire what is happening right now, for a specific amount of time.
The unhealthy version of the freeze response is when we dissociate, when we detach ourselves from whatever is happening around us. We might be too stressed, and we completely switch off, we reject any stimuli, and we don’t allow any experiences to get into our bodies. We might be with other people, but we don’t listen to them, we don’t engage emotionally with others, and we isolate ourselves. We might numb ourselves in front of the TV as we just want time to pass by. We don’t want to think or fail, we are completely overwhelmed, so we suppress our feelings and whatever is happening inside of us.
The fawn responseThe last coping mechanism is called fawn. Fawning is a response that has to do with people-pleasing behaviour. The healthy version of this response is when we have compassion for other people, when we care about them and we take the time to support, validate and listen to them.
The unhealthy version of fawning is when we put aside all of our needs and focus only on other people’s needs. We then create co-dependent relationships, where we want people to need us because we need them back. We think that we are not enough, and we are constantly giving to others because we believe that unless we are useful to them 24 / 7, we are not worthy.
This can also lead to staying in relationships that are abusive. A person with a fawning trauma response might stay in a toxic relationship because they feel that they need to fix the other person, that it is their responsibility to change them.
Similarly, fawning can also manifest as having little or no boundaries and letting people do and ask whatever they want. This can cause the person to lose themselves in other people’s lives and end up feeling empty as they have invested all of their energy, time and resources in other people. It can leave the person feeling resentful towards the people around them, ultimately creating an unhealthy relationship dynamic where the person who fawns is the one always pleasing and giving to others without getting anything in return.
Final thoughtsI hope this gave you a good understanding of the four possible trauma responses. Now that you know them, try to identify your own responses and connect them to your traumatic experiences. But please remember, not all trauma responses need to change – some of them can be completely harmless.
For example, maybe you’re offering your time to other people and your kindness is part of your personality; it makes you who you are. You are the only one that knows what your boundaries look like and only you can decide if your people-pleasing behaviour is harming your wellbeing and your relationships or if it is hurting you and those around you. This is what makes the difference between a helpful trauma response and an unhealthy, maladaptive coping mechanism.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave us a message. And, if you need help identifying or working on your trauma responses, you can reach out to me. You are not alone.