Applied Psychology

Four Types of Trauma Response

Oct 17, 2023 | By Saranne Durham

Any emotional or traumatic experience can impact someone’s wellbeing. How each person responds to trauma varies according to their background, experiences and current context. There are four types of trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. Ideally, an individual should be able to respond with the most appropriate of the four when faced with a threat. However, a default response can override a healthier response. 

Understanding Traumatic Responses

Three Types of Traumas

  1. Acute: Arises from a single incident. Example: The death of a loved one. 
  2. Chronic: Repeated and prolonged exposure to an incident(s). Example: Domestic violence or abuse.  
  3. Complex: Exposure to differing and/or multiple traumatic events. Example: Usually, an experience which is invasive or interpersonal in nature. 

What one person experiences as trauma might not translate into trauma for another individual. This is because how we each process an experience is coloured by experiences, background and the context of an event. A traumatic event has an immediate impact and then can cause a ripple effect across someone’s life.  

“Trauma can affect one’s perception and experiences in the future.”

Common Responses to Trauma

There are Four F’s when it comes to describing how someone responds to a traumatic event. Trauma responses can be learned as coping mechanisms stemming from childhood. Or as the result of experiences at any point in one’s life. They are fundamentally a default response. This response occurs when an individual is faced with a perceived or actual threat. 

Four Trauma Responses

1. Fight

The fight response is characterised by self-preservation. It rarely takes into account others around the person impacted. When we tap into an unhealthy flight response, we can create bigger issues. Some of the behaviours of an unhealthy fight response include bullying, being controlling and having unrealistic demands or narcissistic tendencies. However, in many cases, it is an appropriate response and when used healthily can be of assistance. It’s used healthily when we assert ourselves appropriately and speak up courageously. For example: Telling someone that you won’t let them treat or speak to you in an abusive way. 

2. Flight

Flight is about disengaging completely from an event or experience. It can be a healthy response when it’s used to withdraw from, for example, an unhealthy relationship or a dangerous situation. However, it can also result in unhealthy tactics like obsessive-compulsive behaviours, an inability to be still, panic and constant fear. While the immediate issue is successfully avoided by flight responses, the situation often escalates as it is actually being ignored. 

3. Freeze

A freeze response is an excellent one when the situation requires you to be fully present, exercise awareness or take a mindful approach. An example in nature is when animals pretend to be asleep or play dead. It’s also known as “playing possum”. But freezing as a response can become unhealthy. This is when someone tends towards dissociation, zoning out and not being able to take action or be decisive. In an abusive situation, it can lead to someone “walking on eggshells” rather than seeking help to de-escalate a situation. 

4. Fawn

This is the response that people are generally most unaware of. It’s related to people pleasing. And often results in someone going beyond what they should to placate or make someone else happy (often at their own expense). It can lead to the perpetuation of a toxic situation. As a result, it can cause co-dependency, destruction of self and the development of dubious or non-existent boundaries. However, when exercised healthily, it can lead to a deeper compassion for others and active listening. It can also assist in establishing fairness or finding a compromise. 

Understanding Trauma Responses

SACAP Global offers online  micro-credentials that can help you gain a better understanding of the immediate and long-term effects of trauma. And thereby better help those who have experienced trauma in their lives. The Symptoms of Crisis and Trauma is a two-week online certified course. It’s an excellent way to invest in your personal and professional growth. 

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