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Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn and Flop: Understanding these Responses

Updated: 7 days ago


As a trauma therapist, I often see clients struggling to understand their reactions to stressful or traumatic situations. Whether you find yourself lost in an unknown area with a sense of unease, unexpectedly confronted by an aggressive dog barking at you, or caught off guard by a sudden train cancellation while commuting, these diverse situations can trigger the body's stress (trauma) response. Understanding the five trauma responses can be beneficial in managing and reshaping behavioural patterns, ultimately aiding in the healing process.


The Trauma Response System


The trauma response system operates out of conscious awareness and refers to the physiological and psychological reactions that occur in response to a traumatic event. This automatic system is designed to protect us from perceived threats and involves a complex interaction of the brain, nervous system, and body.


When a threat is perceived, a cascade of responses is triggered to ensure survival. These responses are now categorised as follows:


  • Fight: Confronting any perceived threat with aggression.

  • Flight: Swiftly escaping from the source of danger.

  • Freeze: Becoming immobilised, unable to move or act in response to a threat.

  • Fawn: Immediately seeking to please others to avoid conflict.

  • Flop: Entering a state of collapse or submission, involving a complete shutdown such as fainting or collapsing.


The trauma response system is crucial for survival because it triggers immediate, automatic reactions to life-threatening situations, allowing people to respond without conscious thought. The fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop responses ensure rapid and efficient use of the body's resources, enhancing the chances of survival.


How Does It Work?


Consider a time when you felt one of these responses – perhaps when you saw a scary-looking dog during a walk or had to do a work presentation in front of a large group. Your breathing got faster, your heart raced, and your body tensed up, ready to act.


The process begins in the amygdala, the part of your brain that deals with fear. The amygdala tells the hypothalamus to activate the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which has two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The fight or flight response is part of the sympathetic system. When it kicks in, the adrenal glands release adrenaline and noradrenaline.


When you sense a stressor, like seeing a scary dog, the hypothalamus tells the sympathetic system to release adrenaline. This makes your heart and breathing go faster, sends more blood to your muscles, and stops digestion – getting your body ready for "fight or flight." Once the stressor is gone, the parasympathetic system takes over, slowing down your heart and breathing, restarting digestion, and bringing everything back to normal.


Signs of Stress in the Body


When your body senses a threat and activates one of these responses, it exhibits specific signs. Let's go through them:


  • Eyes: Pupils dilate, improving vision in low light. You may feel like you have tunnel vision or enhanced sharpness.

  • Ears: Ears become more alert, and hearing sharpens.

  • Heart: Heart rate increases, and blood vessels widen, sending more blood, oxygen, and energy to muscles, preparing for action.

  • Lungs: Breathing accelerates, taking in more oxygen for muscles.

  • Skin: Skin may become pale, and the face flushes. Blood redirects from the skin's surface to essential areas like muscles and the brain, causing hands and feet to feel cold.

  • Muscles: All muscles tense up, readying for action, potentially leading to shaking or trembling, especially if there's no movement.

  • Stomach: Nausea or "butterflies" may occur as blood shifts away from the digestive system.

  • Mind: Thoughts race, aiding in quick assessment and decision-making. Focusing on anything other than perceived danger becomes challenging, and dizziness or light-headedness may occur if there's no actual running or fighting.

  • Pain: Sensitivity to pain temporarily decreases during these responses.


Since everyone's response to stress is unique, these reactions can differ. After the threat subsides, it takes approximately 20 to 60 minutes for each person's body to return to its usual state.


The Mental Stress Reaction


In addition to the physical response, psychological effects may arise. Nervousness is a common psychological manifestation, and acute stress can amplify feelings of anger or hasten movements when avoiding danger. On the other hand, it might lead to mental blankness, making it nearly impossible to think clearly and decide the next course of action. Various psychological responses may emerge, including anxiety, shifts in focus, and sporadic attention.


Both the physiological and psychological stress responses propel the whole person into survival mode.


Trauma Responses Beyond the Initial Event


While the trauma response system is crucial for immediate survival, it can become problematic when these responses get "stuck" and start to play out repeatedly in life after the original trauma. This can occur when the brain continues to perceive threats in situations that are not life-threatening, causing the same intense reactions.


For instance, someone who experienced a traumatic event may find themselves responding with fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop in everyday situations that remind them, consciously or unconsciously, of the original trauma. These responses can become ingrained patterns, significantly impacting daily functioning and well-being.


Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, and Flop


The stress response happens when what's happening around us feels too much for us to handle. How stressed we feel depends on how we see an event and if we think we can handle it. For example, a person who is good at playing a particular sport might not feel stressed before a game because they are confident in their abilities. On the other hand, someone who struggles with the same sport might feel extremely stressed before a game, leading to a stress response.


Fight: When you sense danger and think you can beat it, you're in fight mode. Signs include intense anger, the urge to harm, clenching your jaw, glaring, crying, or an upset stomach.


Flight: Thinking you can escape danger by running away. Signs include restlessness, feeling trapped, physical activity, numbness, wide eyes.


Freeze: When fighting or fleeing isn't possible, freezing is an option. Signs include paleness, fear, feeling rigid, a loud and rapid heartbeat, stress without a noticeable reaction.


Fawn: When none of the above responses work, fawning involves people-pleasing behaviours to avoid conflict. This often stems from early experiences of abuse.


Flop: When all other responses fail, the body may collapse or submit. This involves a complete shutdown such as fainting or collapsing.


The Importance of Understanding Trauma Responses


Understanding these trauma responses and how they might be happening in the present when triggered can be helpful in several ways:


  • Self-Compassion: Recognising that these responses are not personal failings but normal reactions to trauma can foster self-compassion, helping survivors be kinder to themselves and reducing shame and self-blame.

  • Normalisation: Understanding that these responses are instinctive in the face of threat normalises the experience, making people feel validated and understood.

  • Empowerment: Knowing how trauma responses manifest empowers people to take control of their healing journey. They can learn to identify triggers and implement coping strategies to manage their reactions effectively.

  • Healing: Awareness of trauma responses is a crucial step towards healing. It allows survivors to process their experiences, work through unresolved emotions, and develop resilience.


Working with a Trauma Therapist


Many people struggle with shame and difficulty because they don't realise that their trauma responses are entirely normal and predictable, contributing to feelings of isolation and self-blame. Working with a trauma-informed therapist is crucial for survivors to receive understanding, validation, and specialised support tailored to their unique experiences, facilitating their healing journey effectively.


A trauma therapist can help you:


  • Identify Triggers: Recognise situations or stimuli that trigger trauma responses.

  • Develop Coping Strategies: Implement techniques to manage and reduce the intensity of these responses.

  • Process Trauma: Work through traumatic memories and emotions in a safe and supportive environment.

  • Build Resilience: Strengthen your ability to cope with future stressors in healthier ways.


Dealing with the Trauma Responses


Understanding how your body reacts with fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop is key to dealing with tough situations. When you feel tense, there are ways to make your body calm and relaxed. Even though these responses are useful in some situations, everyday situations can cause stress without any real danger. Managing stress is crucial for your overall health.


Understanding these reactions helps us find new ways to deal with our stress. When facing these reactions, it's important to look at the bigger picture and learn to slow down, pay attention to yourself and what's going on, and understand the situation to regain control.


Seeking Help


If these responses happen too much, get very strong, and come up at the wrong times, it might indicate seeking help. Although these responses have a clear purpose, they shouldn't happen unless you really need to defend your life. If this describes you, a crucial part of treatment is understanding better how these responses work. Learning more about the responses can help you feel safer by developing relaxation and grounding techniques.


Look out for these signs; seek help if you have any of the following frequently:


  • Always feeling "on edge."

  • Unable to relax.

  • Always scared, nervous, or worried.

  • Stress gets in the way of daily things.

  • You feel scared of things that aren't really threats.


Getting help is important. If you're worried about your mental or physical health, make yourself a priority. A mental health professional can help find why you're feeling overwhelmed.


Conclusion


The fight, flight, freeze, fawn, or flop response happens when your mind or body senses a threat. It's a natural defence system from evolution that makes your body react, like increasing your heart rate and making your senses sharper, so you can quickly protect yourself from what you think is dangerous.


If you notice you're having these responses too much, especially when it's not a life-threatening situation, talk to a mental health professional. They can help you figure out why it's happening and find ways to deal with it.








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