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4 ways your brain can respond to trauma

4 ways your brain can respond to trauma

When your body experiences a traumatic event, there are possible ways or pattern it can respond in that particular situation. Trauma impacts people in many ways, whether it is short-term or long-term. You’re undoubtedly aware of this.
Did you know, though, that four separate responses can seemingly explain how your experiences manifest themselves in your reactions and behavior?
There’s the classic fight-or-flight response, which you’re probably most familiar with. When confronted with a threat, you can either resist or retaliate, or just run. You may have heard this referred to as fight, flight, or freeze. The freeze reaction is similar to delaying in that it creates a short halt that allows your mind and body to plan and prepare for your future moves.

However, your reaction to a traumatic event might go beyond fight, flight, or freeze. When we have a traumatic event or have been subjected to extended stress, the amygdala, an area of our brain, goes into overdrive, causing us to see and feel risks in non threatening situations. This leads us to act in ways we don’t understand, and it may make us feel like we’ve lost control of our lives. Your brain’s trauma response is frequently based on what it believes would help you survive the current predicament.

The Fight Response

When functioning properly, the fight response allows for assertiveness and clear limits. It’s an active self-preservation mechanism that moves you reactively toward confrontation with rage and aggressiveness when it’s unhealthy—that is, when it’s utilized as a trauma reaction. It’s a frightened reaction to the danger of having to stand up and establish oneself. According to studies, this attitude stems from the unconscious assumption that retaining power and control over others will lead to the acceptance, love, and safety you craved as a child but didn’t receive. Those who go through the fight response feel that establishing authority over the threat will lead to security and control. An adrenaline surge may accompany this response, as well as a desire to defend oneself by fighting, screaming at, or dominating others. The following behaviors may indicate a trauma response:


Jaw flexed/tight, teeth grinding

Desire to stomp, kick, and destroy things 

Anger/rage feelings



The Flight Response

In brief, the urge to escape or deny pain, mental upheaval, and other suffering is defined by the flight reaction. When confronted with a potentially harmful circumstance, the flight reaction is accompanied by avoidant behavior. You may be discerning in stressful situations and withdraw within limitations when you’re healthy. However, as a trauma response, you go one step farther by completely isolating yourself. Those who are flight types defend themselves from danger by fleeing.
Those that participate in this trauma reaction deal with a threat by fleeing or running away from it. When they feel threatened, those who engage in a flight reaction frequently have trouble relaxing and sitting still because they are continuously thinking, hurrying, hiding, or panicking. The following behaviours may indicate the trauma response:

making never-ending escape plans

Legs and feet are restless, and there is numbness in the legs.

spacing off or acting as though you aren’t paying attention

Using music to drown out disagreements

Anxiety/shortness of breath

getting distracted (intentionally or inadvertently)

The Freeze Response

The freeze reaction is a delaying mechanism. Your brain pushes the “stop” button but stays hypervigilant, waiting and observing until it can decide if escaping or fighting is the better option for getting to safety. In case of a healthy pattern, the freeze reaction might help you slow down and thoroughly assess the situation before deciding what to do next. When the freeze reaction is problematic, it leads to detachment and immobilizing actions. When you use this protection, you may feel “frozen” and unable to move, or you may find yourself spacing out as if you’re in a haze or disconnected from reality. According to some experts, this response occurs before you decide whether to escape or fight. When you can’t think of a way to fight back or escape, a long-term freeze response might feel like a mask you put on to protect yourself. Behaviors that might indicate this trauma response are:

To get away from the stresses of everyday life, you utilize fantasy or imagination.

Feeling trapped in a certain region of your body

Isolating and trying to stay away from intimate connections.

a feeling of stiffness and heaviness

hiding emotions and sentiments

Sense of fear, beating heart

Quickly giving up and spacing out

The Fawn Response

The fawn reaction entails moving quickly to try to please someone in order to avoid confrontation. This reaction provides a different route to safety. In summary, you avoid danger by learning to satisfy and keep the person who is threatening you pleased. Fawns use placation to defend themselves from danger.
Those who have a fawn reaction avoid or deal with conflict by “people-pleasing.” This is a common reaction to childhood trauma, especially when a parent or other important authority figure is the abuser. By becoming a pleaser, children go into a fawn-like reaction in an attempt to escape verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. It’s defined by putting others first and doing everything it takes to avoid confrontation and get their acceptance. It may appear beneficial to be well-liked and to defer to others in order to ensure safety, but not when it comes at the expense of losing oneself. It can get to the point where you forget about yourself and your wants because you’ve merged so deeply with others. You are most likely not observed by others and may feel overshadowed by the people in your life. Because the fawn reaction develops early in life, it might be difficult to identify when it occurs. However, there are a few telltale indicators that the fawn response is in play:

In a relationship or a circumstance, you turn to others for feedback on how you’re feeling.

In order to avoid criticism or bad feedback, you feel that the person in authority should be continually praised.

Excessive apologies to others

Even when you’re alone, it’s tough to pinpoint your emotions.

you have the impression that you know very little about what you like or appreciate

It’s difficult to say no.

You frequently feel as if you lack an identity.

Going out of one’s way to make others happy

You experience self-anger and guilt on a regular basis, if not all of the time.

Trauma affects you in more ways than one. More often than not, it has long-term consequences that might disturb one’s well-being for years.
Abuse may inflict severe pain and damage in only one occurrence. Abuse that occurs repeatedly may have a catastrophic effect on your capacity to develop good connections and relationships, as well as your physical and mental health. Know that you aren’t alone if you identify with one of the four F trauma reactions.
However, it is possible to work through trauma and reduce its negative effects on your life. While assistance from loved ones may always make a difference in the recovery from trauma and abuse, most people require a bit more aid. PTSD and C-PTSD are both recognised mental health problems that do not recover without expert help. It’s possible that your trauma reaction is a holdover from a traumatic upbringing, but it’s not fixed in stone.

Support from a skilled therapist may go a long way toward addressing the long-term impacts of prior trauma, as well as any mental health problems that may arise as a result. Keep in mind to treat oneself with grace, love, and compassion. You have been doing everything you can to stay alive, stay protected. It will take some time to unlearn some of these habits, which is OK.

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