We all naturally respond to trauma in a certain way. We either Fight Flight Freeze or Fawn
As I will explain in this article, sometimes due to difficulty experienced as a child, we will only respond to difficulties with either Fight Flight Freeze or Fawn which can lead to difficulties.
In a previous article, I described what Complex Post Traumatic Stress disorder is in detail. CPTSD is a psychological disorder that can happen when a child is exposed to repeated trauma i.e. trauma experienced from those who supposed to care for a child. Every child has a basic biological need for safety and security. If this is compromised either because of emotional, spiritual, physical or sexual abuse, this could force a child to start behaving in a way to escape, control the situation or to try and avoid it. This is a natural response to the stress and trauma they are experiencing.
When we experience stress or trauma, we all automatically respond in one of those four ways depending on the given situation. For example, if we saw a tiger in the middle of the city centre, most of us would run (in other words flight). Would not be appropriate to fight, for most of us. Or even freeze and standstill. Even trying to Fawn by negotiating with a wild animal. We would hopefully respond accordingly.
This however is a biological response which is natural.
We as human beings and those from the animal kingdom instinctively respond to trauma, frightening things or challenges in that way. When we think there is a threat, our bodies activate our sympathetic nervous system and triggers and “acute stress response” which prepares our bodies to fight, flight freeze or fawn.
What happens when we have experienced childhood trauma, we would respond, regardless of the situation with one, maybe two of the Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn types. This was a way of coping as a child, but when we carry those behaviours into adulthood, it can cause problems, as you can imagine for us.
Remember, when you are looking at trauma, it is really important to put yourself in the position of a child. For example, if you were repeatedly let down and ignored as a child aged four, as an adult now you might say it is not a big deal.
However, if you try to imagine what a four-year-old would be thinking and feeling at the time, a child at that age would not have the worldliness to make sense of what is happening.
All you would feel or believe is that you would have done something wrong, “it’s all my fault”. You would start doing things to make themselves feel better. You might start to fight or act out, or even go as far as working out how to try and be as kind and helpful as they can to the person that has hurt you, that let you down. Just to try and get their approval.
You would not do this consciously. As a child you would not have had the verbal skills to talk about it, never mind work out what to do for the best. For example, if you find yourself as a people pleaser. Maybe as a child you got attention by being extra helpful. If it got you some attention, even if it was negative, you would start to repeat that behaviour to get more of the attention you needed.
That behaviour would have been constantly repeated until it becomes part of your habits and behaviours. This would especially happen if the trauma was repeated. You would respond in a certain way in an attempt to get your needs met and to survive.
You could respond to stress in any one of these four ways
When you experience stress or trauma, you all automatically gravitate to one of those four ways depending on the given situation. For example, if you saw a tiger in the middle of the city centre, most of us would run (in other words flight). Wouldn’t be appropriate to fight, for most of us anyway or even freeze and standstill, or even trying to Fawn by negotiating with a wild animal. We would hopefully respond accordingly.
What happens when we have experienced childhood trauma? You would respond, regardless of the situation with one, maybe two of the Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn types. This was a way of coping as a child, but when we carry those behaviours into adulthood, it can cause problems, as you can imagine, for us.
Just to express quite strongly here that these behaviours are learned behaviours in response to your childhood environment. It is not a character flaw or a weakness. You did what you needed to do to survive.
The great news is that, what was learned back then, can be unlearned and you can learn more helpful behaviours. It starts by understanding yourself a little bit more and trying to recognise what your response type is.
Also, no ONE response is better or worse than the other as we all need to respond in any of the given four types at some time or another. It is OK for you to fight back at times, it is OK to escape from difficult or annoying situations, it is OK to take part in activities that allow you to zone out and be still, and it is OK to be helpful and kind. When you just do one of those all the time, it will cause you difficulties.
When we are fixated on one or two of the four types (will be referred to as 4F types), we may show the following behaviours:
Flight types believe that with control and power, they will be safe
Unconsciously driven by the belief that power and control can create safety, not feel abandoned and they will secure love.
Narcissistic (extremely self-centered with an exaggerated sense of self-importance)
Nice – Nasty
Flight types unconsciously believe that perfection will make them safe and love-able. They also try to outrun the trauma
Compelled by perfectionism
Abuses stimulants such as caffeine, chocolate, cocaine etc
Freeze types, unconsciously disconnects to stop him or herself from experiencing pain. They could also believe, unconsciously, that people are dangerous
Critical of others
Abuses depressants such as Alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines
Fawn types seek safety by integrating with the wishes, needs and demands of others.
Loss of self
Over listening to others
One sided relationship
I am a Therapist based in Sutton Coldfield, UK also available online.
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