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  • Writer's pictureTamar Kipnis

Trauma and Survival Responses: Navigating the Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn

Trauma leaves an indelible mark on the human psyche, triggering automatic survival responses that are deeply ingrained in our biology. These responses, known as fight, flight, freeze or Fawn are the body’s natural mechanisms to protect us from perceived threats. However, when trauma is severe or prolonged, these responses can become maladaptive, affecting day-to-day functioning and overall well-being. In this blog post, we explore the nature of trauma, the survival responses it elicits, and strategies for navigating and healing from these deeply rooted reactions.


Understanding Trauma


Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event or series of events. It can result from experiences such as abuse, violence, accidents, natural disasters, or any situation that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. Trauma affects both the mind and body, leading to a range of psychological and physiological responses that are aimed at ensuring survival.


The Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn Responses


When confronted with a traumatic event, the body activates its survival mechanisms, commonly known as the fight, flight, freeze or Fawn responses:


Fight:


Responding to threats with aggression or confrontation. This reaction can manifest as anger, irritability or a readiness to argue or physically defend oneself.


Flight:


Fleeing from a treat to seek safety. This might look like avoiding confrontation, escaping the situation/ using substance abuse to avoid internal intensities.  


Freeze:


The freeze response is a state of paralysis/ shock where the individual becomes immobile, numb hoping to avoid detection or harm by remaining still. This response can be accompanied by dissociation, where the mind disconnects from the body to protect itself from overwhelming stress.


Fawn:


Appeasing the threat to defuse potential harm. This involves people- pleasing behaviors, emptying one-selves attempting to placate or accommodate the other to avoid conflict.


The Long-Term Impact of Trauma


While the fight, flight, freeze or Fawn responses are adaptive in the face of immediate danger, repeated or severe trauma can lead to long-term changes in the brain and body. These changes include:


Hypervigilance: A state of heightened alertness where the individual is constantly on guard for potential threats.


Emotional Dysregulation: Difficulty in managing and responding to emotional experiences, often resulting in intense and unpredictable emotions.


Intrusive Memories: Persistent and distressing recollections of the traumatic event, which can trigger survival responses even in safe environments.


Complex PTSD (C-PTSD): A condition resulting from prolonged exposure to trauma, characterized by persistent emotional dysregulation, negative self-concept, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships.


Healing


Healing from trauma and its survival responses requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the psychological and physiological aspects of the experience. Here are some strategies:


Trauma-Informed Therapy:


Therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, and trauma-focused Internal Family System therapy (IFS) are designed to help individuals process and re-configure traumatic experiences.


Mind-Body Practices:


Somatic approaches, as well as practices like yoga, meditation, and deep-breathing exercises can help regulate the nervous system and reduce the physiological symptoms of trauma.


Building Resilience:


Developing resilience involves cultivating coping strategies, fostering supportive relationships, and engaging in activities that promote a sense of purpose and empowerment.


Medication:


In some cases, medication may be prescribed to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions associated with trauma and being stuck.


Trauma and its associated survival responses are deeply rooted in our biology, designed to protect us in the face of danger. However, when these responses become maladaptive, they can significantly impact our quality of life. Understanding the nature of trauma and the fight, flight, freeze or Fawn responses are crucial for navigating the path to healing. Through trauma-informed therapy, mind-body practices, resilience-building, and, when necessary, medication, individuals can learn to manage their survival responses and reclaim their lives from the grip of trauma.

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