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4 min read

Way More Than Fight or Flight: The Six Trauma Responses and What They Mean

Note: This is an informational article about how the brain reacts to psychological trauma. If you are looking for emergency trauma response services, call 911.

Key Takeaways:

  • Everyone responds to trauma in a different way, and different kinds of trauma can have different responses in the same people.
  • The six main types of trauma responses are fight, flight, freeze, fawn, fine, and faint.
  • All reactions to trauma are valid, but trauma should always be addressed in therapy.

Trauma, whether we like it or not, is often a part of life.

As nice as it might sound, there's just no way to guarantee that no trauma will ever make its way into your life.

And as survivors know, trauma can be a life-altering experience. Even with treatment, some trauma never goes away.

But in the short-term, there are several kinds of responses to trauma that one might experience. Familiarizing yourself with these responses may help you understand what your brain is doing during a traumatic moment, and self-awareness can be a great tool for your mental health.

Let's explore the six main trauma responses and what they mean in terms of psychology and brain chemistry.

Trauma Response Information On This Page:

Wait. There's more than fight-or-flight?

The "Fight" Response

The "Flight" Response

The "Freeze" Response

The "Fawn" Response

The "Fine" Response

The "Faint" Response

How Therapy Can Help Survivors of Trauma

Wait. There's more than fight-or-flight?

Absolutely!

While there are six generally-agreed-upon trauma responses, the most commonly mentioned are the fight response and the flight response.

There are two reasons these are so well-known, while the other four responses are not:

  • The catchy rhyme "fight-or-flight" is easy to teach and easy to remember
  • Fight and flight are the two most common reactions to threats in animals, which are often used as anecdotes to demonstrate the idea of a trauma response.

The reality, however, is that the human brain is far too complicated to always default immediately to running away from a threat - or punching it.

There are a total of six responses:

  • Fight
  • Flight
  • Freeze
  • Fawn
  • "Fine"
  • Faint

Let’s expand.

The "Fight" Response

The easiest trauma response to understand is the "fight" response. A threat or traumatic event becomes immediate, and almost out of instinct, a fight ensues.

We should note here that "fight" doesn't necessarily mean throwing haymakers in a parking lot (though it can). A fight can be an argument or even a simple conversation. The only true marker of a fight is a series of attacks and defenses.

For example, say someone launches a verbal assault on the way you dress. A fight response would be to turn the assault back on them, insulting their clothes to make yours seem better. That's a verbal fight.

By contrast, of course, there are also certainly times when a physical fight is a necessary trauma response - for example, during a sexual assault or robbery.

Both of these kinds of fights stem from the same "fight" response in your brain.

The "fight" response comes from a squirt of hormones that essentially diverts all your cognitive and physiological processes to preparing for a physical fight. It comes from the primordial days, when that hormonal response could mean the difference between returning to your family and becoming a tiger's hors d'oeuvre.

This same brain activity is also responsible for the "flight" response.

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The "Flight" Response

The "flight" response is also the result of your brain sending all systems to go - just in the opposite direction.

An obvious example is running away from a physical threat like an assailant on the street, but there is also emotional flight.

Emotional flight can manifest as many different behaviors, including the silent treatment, failing to acknowledge the problem, or refusing to talk about what's bothering you.

The "Freeze" Response

The "freeze" response happens when your brain is so overwhelmed by stimulus that you experience a kind of paralysis.

This may happen if the trauma you have just experienced was so sudden and so severe that the next course of action is not immediately obvious.

In 2007, for example, an assailant entered a Dutch police station and began stabbing officers. One officer in question exhibited a freeze response, during which she continued to be harmed by the perpetrator. After a moment, however, she took action and neutralized the threat.

Such a sudden and violent attack essentially short-circuited the officer's brain, leaving her briefly frozen.

Scientists believe that the amygdala is responsible for the "freeze" response. In contrast to fighting and fleeing, freezing usually comes with bradycardia, or a decreased heart rate.

The "Fawn" Response

The "fawn" response is a psychological reaction to trauma wherein the victim attempts to appease the traumatic stimuli in order to get it to stop.

An example of this is a woman offering to clean the house to appease her abusive partner. While this response can create a temporary and relatively (emphasis on relatively) safe environment, it can also feed into abusive and traumatic behavior and make the problem worse in the long run.

Venn Diagram (1)

The "Fine" Response

The "fine" response refers to self-denial of trauma.

It occurs when someone does not want to believe that they are traumatized, and that they can handle whatever threat or action has just befallen them.

People exhibiting the "fine" response may cause more harm to themselves than they realize, as experiencing grief is an important part of the healing journey.

The "Faint" Response

The "faint" response is exactly what it sounds like - you faint as a response to a traumatic sight or event.

Fainting after trauma is called vasovagal syncope. Essentially, the part of your brain responsible for regulating your heart rate gives up, and your heart rate plummets. That's why some people faint at the sight of blood.

How Therapy Can Help Survivors of Trauma

While all trauma responses are valid, all trauma should be addressed in therapy.

Only a professional mental health therapist can discover exactly how deep trauma goes, and then work to relieve the distress and psychological concerns it may be causing.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of licensed doctoral-level therapists maintains an unparalleled level of academic knowledge and professional experience when it comes to trauma and its effects.

If you or a loved one has undergone a traumatic experience, whether it was last week or decades ago, we would be honored to hear you. Feeling better may be closer than you think.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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