The way you respond to stress is written into the fabric of your being; your upbringing, your past trauma, and your instincts are driving forces that determine how your body and brain will react to a trigger. The fight, flight, freeze, and fawn trauma responses are the body’s natural survival tactics that protect against a perceived threat, such as an argument, a storm, or even a broken phone. When stress becomes overwhelming, the body responds accordingly; the brain turns on autopilot, choosing whichever mechanism will keep you safe.
These survival instincts defend you when you’re being ignored, walked over, or harmed. But some of your behaviors while under stress can end up being harmful to yourself or the people you love. You can learn what causes the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses and how to manage these disruptions, as it is important to be mindful of how and when your reactions manifest.
What Causes the Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn Response?
Your autonomic nervous system regulates your body’s processes such as breathing, heart rate, sweating, urination, and digestion, subconsciously keeping you ticking. When this system is overwhelmed by a trigger, the sympathetic nervous system, a subdivision, kicks into action; this autonomic response will take charge, controlling the body’s physical responses.
While the sympathetic nervous system is active, a few changes can happen in your body—your heart rate quickens, your adrenaline starts pumping, you tremble and sway, you sweat more and breathe faster, and your body finds a way to cope with the stress. As it tries to protect itself, it taps into a trauma response, or a combination of two. Finally, when the perceived threat has lessened or left, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over in order to return you to homeostasis.
These behaviors are learned—the upbringing, environment, culture, and experiences of a person shape which trauma response is activated. As a child grows, they need to be nurtured with compassion; parenting styles and social struggles heavily affect how a child develops emotional intelligence. Your brain’s amygdala is responsible for rational thought; when it is hijacked by intense emotions, it relies on the responses that kept you safe in the past.
What Triggers a Trauma Response?
There are life-threatening situations in which having your adrenaline pumping and tunnel vision are useful—a car accident, an encounter with a wild animal, or getting away from an intruder. These situations activate a natural response to danger. An ordinary circumstance for one person can be an overwhelming experience for another, such as public speaking, witnessing an argument, reading the news, or accidentally calling someone; what affects you may not have the same effect on those around you.
There are many reasons we enter into survival mode, with the potential to trigger different trauma responses. Being aware of what triggers you can help you manage your emotions in the future and increase your self-awareness. While many have been studied and proposed over the past century, there are four main trauma responses the human body is equipped with to deal with difficult and scary situations.
What Is the Fight Response?
The fight response is a trauma response of self-preservation—in order to protect yourself, you act aggressively towards the threat. Cortisol and adrenaline levels rise, making it harder to think clearly and react calmly. Your anger is expressed through domination and the pursuit of power. The fight response can look like:
- Impulsivity and hypersensitivity, such as immediately pushing someone away who touches you
- Physically defending yourself from a threat
- Glaring at someone or using a biting tone
- Shouting “No!” when someone doesn’t leave you alone
- Telling someone you weren’t responsible for something they blamed you for
- Trying to prove you are right or perpetuating an argument after it’s over
- Assigning yourself the role of leader, dictating the space you’re in
- Self-sabotage: starting fights with someone over insignificant or invented situations
While the fight response might seem like an unhealthy reaction, there is nothing inherently wrong with going on the defensive. This is particularly true during physical altercations and life-threatening situations. However, yelling, instigating aggression, and using hurtful words aren’t forms of constructive communication. If you feel as if the fight response is difficult for you to work through or avoid, try:
- Closing your eyes, breathing deeply, and visiting a pleasant place in your mind
- Counting to ten before speaking; if you are still angry, count to one hundred
- Using physical activity to self-regulate and let out your emotions, such as running or dancing
What Is the Flight Response?
The flight response is a trauma response controlled by panicked, avoidant behavior, pushing you to isolate yourself from the perceived threat. When triggered, it can be hard to sit still, stay in a room, or even talk to people. Restlessness, darting eyes, shaking hands and legs—the physical reaction of this trauma response can even trigger chronic pain. The flight response can look like:
- Running away from perceived danger such as loud bangs in public
- Leaning on perfectionism to avoid criticism
- Becoming a workaholic to distract yourself
- Positioning yourself to face the exit in a restaurant or other crowded room
- Difficulty focusing on anything but thoughts of the trigger
- Difficulty resting, relaxing the body, and falling asleep
- Hypervigilance and jumpiness
- Racing or obsessive thoughts
- Using substances such as drugs and alcohol to damper anxiety
In situations like a natural disaster or a public safety issue, the flight response is an appropriate answer. However, isolation and avoidant behavior can have negative impacts on your interpersonal relationships, showing up as stonewalling and damaging communication. If you feel as if the fight response is difficult for you to work through or avoid, try:
- Affirming to yourself that you are safe
- Utilizing grounding techniques such as earthing, rain therapy, or forest breathing
- Using or trying yoga or meditation to ease your high levels of anxiety
What Is the Freeze Response?
The freeze response is a trauma response that relies on dissociation to detach you from the perceived threat. While the flight response overindulges in anxiety, the freeze response rejects it by numbing your emotions and withdrawing from reality. Often described as a “deer in headlights,” some also compare this to an animal playing dead when stalked by a predator. You feel immobile, unable to move or look away from the threat. Your heart rate builds, your breathing quickens, and you feel detached from your body. The freeze response can look like:
- Difficulty expressing emotions, such as using a monotone voice
- Selective mutism or going non-verbal under stress
- Making choices becomes harder and you experience decision fatigue
- Brain fog: confusion, forgetfulness, attention issues
- Leaving conversations without clarity
- Depression and hibernation
- Struggling to make plans or stick to them
- Periods of inactivity
- Constantly daydreaming
- Not answering the phone and avoiding conversations about your needs
- Escaping reality through an addiction such as marijuana, alcohol, video games, or television
The freeze response may feel natural and safe to someone who sees other people as threats, and it often leads to passivity while experiencing toxic relationships. To manage a freeze response without isolating yourself and avoiding your problems, focus on self-awareness and have a mindful approach. If you feel as if the freeze response is difficult for you to work through or avoid, try:
- Staying present by describing your environment with the 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique
- Using mindful meditation to label your thoughts and emotions
- Making a gratitude list and appreciating the good in your life
What Is the Fawn Response?
The fawn response is a trauma response that relies on people-pleasing so you can avoid conflict, trying to placate a perceived threat. This trauma response prioritizes the threat and tends to its needs, resembling a codependent relationship—one in which there is someone giving more to the other person. You smile, tense up, and no longer act in your own best interest; your tunnel vision focuses on eliminating the threat with flattery and self-denial. The fawn response can look like:
- Having a hard time saying “no”
- Over-apologizing or accepting blame for something you did not do
- Assuming you are responsible for others’ emotions
- Prioritizing someone over yourself, even abandoning your plans to be with them
- Lacking a sense of self or having a hard time describing yourself
- Changing your preferences such as personal style and hobbies to match someone else’s
- Flattering others
- Defending people who hurt you, and staying in toxic or abusive situations
- Choosing a career path to please family members
- Following commands without thinking about your wants
The fawn response is often associated with childhood trauma; when someone is raised without the ability to defend themselves within a toxic household, it becomes natural to play along with the perpetrator. The crux of the fawn response is people-pleasing, which means a healthier way to deal with this is to take care of yourself first. If you feel as if the freeze response is difficult for you to work through or avoid, try:
- Writing yourself a script before you assert your needs or boundaries with others
- Trying trauma-informed therapy practices such as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Using opposite action when you feel unable to make a decision for yourself
Trauma responses can be overwhelming experiences, and they take a lot of introspective work to identify within yourself. Journaling your thoughts and responses after having a big reaction can help you further explore what triggers you, how you behave, and what healthy coping mechanisms you should work on. A trauma response is not a personal choice, but a natural change in your body. Moving forward, you will find that while it can be challenging at times, grounding yourself is possible with patience and practice.