It’s More Complicated Than “Fight or Flight”: The Five Trauma Responses

If you’ve experienced trauma, then you know the feelings that can linger long after the traumatic event is over, including:

  • Vulnerable
  • Lost
  • Angry
  • Fearful
  • Ashamed
  • Unable to move forward
  • Misunderstood
  • Alone

While everyone’s response to trauma is unique, there are some common reactions that many people experience. The key is to recognise and understand these responses, which can help us deal with past trauma and move on to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

So, let’s dive into the many emotions and behaviours that can be triggered by traumatic events.

First, what is trauma?

Let’s break down trauma in a down-to-earth way. Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing experience that shakes you to your core and can leave a lasting impact on your mind and body. Trauma can be caused by a single event (acute trauma) or a series of events (chronic trauma) that overwhelm your ability to cope with life.

An article from the Journal of Psychology & Clinical Psychiatry defines trauma this way:

Trauma is “categorized as an overwhelming life-changing experience (and) is typically a physical and/or emotional shock to the very fiber of one’s being.”

Trauma is purely subjective, meaning what may be traumatic for one person might not be for another.

Living with unresolved trauma is like having a wound that doesn’t ever heal, and negatively impacts every part of your life: your thoughts, emotions, behaviours and even your physical wellbeing.

What causes trauma?

Mental and physical effects on PTSD patients

Trauma can be caused by all sorts of distressing experiences, including the following:

  • Serious accidents or injuries
  • Natural disasters
  • Physical or emotional abuse 
  • Neglect or abandonment
  • Military combat
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Chronic health issues
  • Witnessing something deeply upsetting

The key is to recognize that trauma can come from many different sources, and seeking support is crucial for true and lasting healing.

Types of trauma response

When it comes to dealing with a traumatic experience, there’s no one-size-fits-all response or a “typical” way to handle it. The impact of trauma affects each of us differently, like a fingerprint that’s exclusive to our own individuality.

However, during a traumatic event we will all experience our body’s automatic stress signals as they kick in, releasing hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol. We have no control over this survival mode and it can have a range of effects depending on the individual, including feeling paralysed, fighting, or trying to get away.

While there’s no right or wrong way to react to trauma, recent research shows that there are actually five common trauma responses that can happen to us at the time of the traumatic event. 

Sometimes these responses can continue for weeks, months, or even years after the traumatic event is over, as our brain and body continue to work hard to keep us safe from real (or perceived) danger. 

Understanding your own response to trauma can be helpful, so let’s take a look at the five common trauma responses:

1. Fight

Picture this: you’re exposed to something you find traumatic, and instead of feeling helpless, you feel an intense surge of energy and determination. It’s like a fire ignites within you, and you’re ready to take on the world.

This “fight” response is all about the strong release of hormones, particularly cortisol and adrenaline, that makes you feel like you’re ready to fight, struggle or protest in order to gain control. 

Unfortunately, things like chronic low-level stress can keep your brain and body “stuck” in this constant state of “fight” long after the traumatic event has passed. In this case, you’ll likely experience:

  • Worry, fear, or nervousness that’s persistent
  • Always feeling “on edge”
  • Exhaustion or fatigue, despite taking good care of yourself
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Memory problems

2. Flight

For others facing a traumatic event, instead of fighting back they’ll feel an overwhelming urge to escape. If the “flight” survival instincts kick in, you’ll want to put as much distance as possible between yourself and the distressing or dangerous experience. 

This “flight” response is all about seeking safety and escaping the danger. It’s a form of self-preservation, like hitting the emergency eject button, to protect yourself from further harm.

While this response can be necessary for your immediate safety, it can easily become a long-term avoidance strategy which could cause you further harm over time. It may manifest as: 

  • Avoiding reminders of the trauma
  • Withdrawing from social interactions
  • Physically removing yourself from triggering environments

3. Freeze

What is trauma

How about this? You’re faced with an overwhelming event, and instead of fighting or fleeing, you feel frozen. Time seems to stand still, and your body and mind become powerless.

This “freeze” response is your brain’s way of protecting you when it perceives a threat that is too tremendous to handle. It’s like playing dead, hoping that the danger will pass you by. (Animals do this all the time.)

You might feel detached from the situation, numb, or even have a hard time remembering the details of what exactly happened.   

While the “freeze” response might not seem as proactive as fight or flight, it’s a natural defence mechanism that can serve a valuable purpose in the moment.  

It’s important to recognize that freezing can also have long-term effects, such as feeling disconnected from your emotions or having trouble making decisions.

4. Fawn

When faced with a traumatic event, instead of fighting, fleeing, or freezing, some people find themselves in a state of “fawn”. This instinctual response involves trying to appease and please others, even if it means sacrificing their own values and needs.

The “fawn” response often stems from a deep desire to avoid conflict and keep the peace, even at your own expense. You might become overly accommodating with others, meeting their expectations, even if the expectations are unreasonable or harmful. The “fawn” response is like becoming a people-pleaser on overdrive.

While this response may be driven by good intentions, it’s important to recognize that fawning can become a pattern where you neglect your own well-being and is ultimately harmful.

5. Flop

Depressed woman staring at the ceiling

Picture this: you’re experiencing a situation that you find traumatic, and instead of fighting, fleeing, freezing, or fawning, you find yourself “flopping”. In this response mode our body and mind just give up, and we feel completely overwhelmed and drained.

Your system goes into shutdown mode, as if saying, “I can’t deal with this”. While the “flop” response might seem like a lack of coping, initially it is your body’s way of self-preservation.

Left unresolved, this trauma response can manifest as a loss of energy, motivation, and a sense of hopelessness. You might feel physically and emotionally exhausted, finding it hard to function in the world around you.

It’s okay to give yourself permission to rest and recharge, but it’s crucial to seek support and find healthy ways to gradually regain your resilience.

Initial trauma responses may lead to long-term problems

When something traumatic happens, our brains and bodies kick into survival mode, and we may experience one or all of the five trauma responses at different times. These immediate reactions are our brain’s way of trying to protect us and help us cope with the overwhelming situation.

But here’s the thing: trauma doesn’t just disappear overnight. If trauma is not dealt with effectively, it will continue to manifest in unhealthy coping mechanisms.

In the long term, some people may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where they experience recurring flashbacks and anxiety. Others might struggle with depression, insomnia, or develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like substance abuse.

Drugs, alcohol, and trauma

Going through a traumatic experience can leave you feeling like you’ve been knocked down and you may struggle to cope with the aftermath. A whole range of symptoms will emerge if the trauma is left unresolved. Some people will turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to escape, numb, and self-medicate. 

Drug and alcohol use can lead to a dangerous cycle where substance use becomes a way to cope with the trauma, but ultimately ends up exacerbating the problems and may lead to addiction. Think of it like trying to put a band-aid on a deep wound that requires more comprehensive healing.

Substance abuse can further impact mental health, strain relationships, and create additional problems in life.

However, it’s important to remember that this link between trauma and substance abuse is not inevitable or unavoidable. Seeking professional help, therapy, and support groups can help you to address the underlying trauma, provide healthier coping mechanisms, and find lasting relief.

How to cope with trauma

stress relief

Understanding the stress response is the first step to understanding how to cope with trauma. When you’ve experienced something traumatic, it’s essential to acknowledge it and then find ways to take care of yourself and move forward.

So, here are a few ideas to start:

First off, give yourself permission to feel your emotions. Whether it’s sadness, anger, or confusion, allow yourself to express these feelings in a safe and supportive environment.

Secondly, reach out for support. Talk to someone you trust, whether it’s a family member or a friend. Sharing your thoughts and experiences can provide validation and serve as a gateway to healing.

Additionally, prioritise self-care. Engage in activities that bring you pleasure and relaxation, whether it’s practising mindfulness, creating art, or writing. Taking care of your physical health, such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and exercising regularly, can also make a big difference.

Finally, consider seeking professional help. Professional therapy can provide valuable tools and strategies to help you process and heal from trauma. Remember, healing doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient and kind to yourself.

You deserve support, love, and the opportunity to reclaim your life after trauma.

How can Camino Recovery help?

Camino Recovery is like a sanctuary for those who have experienced trauma and are looking for support to heal and transform their lives.

We have a team of dedicated professionals who specialise in trauma recovery and they’re ready to help. From therapists to counsellors, they’re there to listen, understand, and provide you with the tools you need for lasting recovery.

Camino Recovery offers a wide range of therapeutic approaches to meet the diverse needs of our clients, from traditional talk therapy to more experiential methods like art therapy and equine therapy. It’s a place where you can find a sense of safety, community and deep understanding.

If you or someone you know is ready to take that first step towards healing, Camino Recovery is here to support you. Contact us today for a confidential, no-obligation conversation with one of our experienced professionals.

Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

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