Fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop – these are the five trauma responses. They can have lasting effects, often leading people to deal with the symptoms of trauma-related disorders. The good news is that you can heal from your trauma responses with targeted trauma therapy. Innovative treatment techniques can make the process more efficient and effective than it has been in the past.
Most people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime. Traumatic experiences are overwhelming life events that fall far outside of regular experiences. They can cause dramatic changes in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — both in the short term and for months and years to come.
Trauma is a natural response to an event; it’s your body turning to survival mode, attempting to protect you from the harms and dangers of the outside world. While everyone experiences trauma differently, common reactions include:
- Feeling emotionally numb or drained
In most cases, these effects resolve within a few weeks. But for some people, the effects of trauma can last for months, years, or even a lifetime if left untreated.
When the effects of trauma persist for an extended period and begin to disrupt your everyday life, it’s often a sign of post-traumatic stress disorder. This incredibly difficult mental health challenge can cause many negative effects, but it can be treated through trauma therapy and other mental health interventions.
Sources of Trauma
A number of different life events or experiences can lead to trauma. Common sources of trauma include:
- Sexual assault
- Death of a loved one
- Domestic violence
- Natural disasters
- Military combat
- Car accidents
- Physical or mental abuse
While these events above aren’t necessarily uncommon in the scope of a lifetime, they are so far outside of what people normally experience that you may not know how to react, feel, or behave. Instead, your body launches into autopilot to protect yourself, leading to the five trauma responses many people experience.
What Are the 5 Trauma Responses?
The five trauma responses — fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop — describe the ways that people react to a traumatic experience in the moment. Trauma responses are a survival instinct. They happen as a result of a wash of chemicals released in the brain in response to traumatic events.
While each behavior may be different, they all share a common goal. A trauma response is a way to remove yourself from danger and protect yourself from further harm. Yet, at the same time, your body learns that certain situations are cause for a trauma response.
For example, if a dog attacked you, you may have an extreme fear of dogs for years to come. A person in a major vehicle accident may be too frightened to get behind the wheel for months or years after the event. Despite knowing that these situations are rare or unlikely to occur again, your trauma response makes it incredibly difficult to go about your life without experiencing significant distress.
Understanding your trauma response is just one of the many ways for you to start the path to healing. By learning about your physiological reaction, you can choose a different path rather than letting your body pull you on autopilot.
One of the most common trauma responses is the instinct to fight back against the person or situation that has led to a traumatic event. When people have a fight response, their initial reaction is anger or rage. They can show aggression, defiance, or even violence against the source of the traumatic experience.
For example, if you were in a car accident, one fight response might be to attack the person who hit your vehicle. But the fight response isn’t always literal. Another example of a fight response in this situation would be to yell at the other driver, get angry or frustrated with yourself, or blame one of your passengers for distracting you.
In contrast to the fight response, the flight response is to make every attempt to leave the situation as fast as possible. People who utilize the flight response can run, leave unexpectedly, and experience an overwhelming surge of anxiety and fear.
But the flight response can be preemptive as well. If you are experiencing fear of going to a situation that triggers a trauma response, you could cancel your plans or just not show up. For example, people who have an intense fear of public speaking may simply no-show the event or call out sick.
The freeze response is when people become panicked or overwhelmed in a situation. They get caught like a deer in headlights and may not be able to respond in ways that one might expect. The freeze response can be both internal and external, leaving people stuck in place and unable to process their situation.
Freezing can be thought of as a strategy to blend into the background. It is often called the camouflage response.
The flop response is similar to the freeze response and often follows a freeze response if the situation doesn’t resolve. When people flop, their bodies stop reacting to a traumatic event. The flop response is the human equivalent of an animal “playing dead.”
People who experience the flop response may refer to it as an out-of-body experience. It’s as though the traumatic event is happening to someone else, which can provide some semblance of protection for intense and unwanted experiences.
Finally, the fawn response is an attempt to appease or befriend the person who is causing a traumatic experience. For example, a person experiencing emotional or physical abuse can try to get on their abuser’s good side by trying to make the abuser feel more sympathetic toward them.
The fawn response is a way to try to reduce the likelihood that a traumatic event will happen again. While it doesn’t always work, it’s an attempt to reduce further harm from an extreme situation.
How Trauma Responses Color Your Everyday Life
Everyone reacts to trauma in different ways, and it’s often not possible to control the way you react to traumatic situations. But these trauma responses can become preemptive, even when it’s unlikely that a situation will lead to a traumatic experience.
A person who displays the flight response, for instance, can tend to avoid situations with any perceived risk. Those who typically have the fight response may become aggressive or defiant, as a rule, rather than only in response to traumatic situations. People who fawn in response to trauma can become overly sympathetic to potential abusers ahead of time, often leading to further trauma as a result.
Learning your trauma response can help you decide whether it’s how you want to act in these situations. If it is not, you can learn behaviors and techniques that can guide you away from your responses when they don’t serve you.
But in order to truly recover from trauma and retrain your trauma responses, it’s often required that people seek trauma therapy from a trained mental health provider.
Healing from Trauma
There are dozens of treatments for helping people work through trauma, recover from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and lead healthier and more productive lives in recovery. Different treatment options include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Prolonged exposure therapy
- Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing
- Mental health support groups
- Psychiatric medication
- Stellate ganglion blocks
However, there is a new style of trauma therapy that can produce lasting results in just a few sessions, and it often helps people for whom traditional treatments have been unsuccessful.
Treating Trauma With Ketamine-Assisted Therapy
Ketamine-assisted therapy is a new and innovative approach to helping people quickly break free from the harms of traumatic experiences and start living their lives without the weight of trauma holding them back.
Ketamine is a dissociative drug, which is in a subclass of hallucinogens. It has been used in the medical field for decades, but research has only recently discovered its utility in treating trauma.
When taken at the correct dose under the supervision of a trained clinician, ketamine can help people engage deeply in talk therapy by disconnecting them from the intense emotions and physiological reactions associated with trauma. It holds back the trauma response that can often be a roadblock in making meaningful progress in therapy.
Ketamine-assisted therapy involves taking a small and safe dose of the drug and sitting down to talk with a specially trained and licensed therapist. In an individual therapy session, your therapist will guide you through your experience, help you to open up about your trauma responses and experiences, and help show you the way to living a better and healthier life in recovery.
To learn more about ketamine-assisted therapy and the multitude of trauma treatment options we have available, reach out to Plus by APN by calling 424.644.6486 or filling out our confidential online contact form.
- Asim, Muhammad, et al. “Ketamine for Post-traumatic Stress Disorders and It’s Possible Therapeutic Mechanism.” Neurochemistry International, vol. 146, 2021, p. 105044, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuint.2021.105044. Accessed 21 Dec. 2023.