Understanding our responses to trauma and why we react in the way that we do, leads to greater understanding of ourselves. The way that we respond to stressful situations now can often be traced back to events that happened in the past; years and even decades later.
Essentially, the way that we responded to trauma before, can affect how we respond to stress now.
There are 4 basic defensive structures, or responses to a traumatic event: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn (The 4 F’s, as Pete Walker describes).
Each of us is different based on how we were raised, the varying types of trauma we endured, how we view ourselves, birth order, and many other factors which can make up who we are and what we are about. Of course these factors also help determine our default responses and what of the 4 F’s we are.
I’ll be referencing some of Pete’s book throughout this post because it’s such an amazing resource, and led to an immense amount of understanding after I read though it. I highly recommend, “Complex PTSD, from Surviving to Thriving.”
When I first became aware that I was a survivor and I learned about the 4 F’s , I thought of myself immediately as a “Flight”. I had known of Fight or Flight before, but at the time I hadn’t realized that were more than those two alone. Once I began to dive deep into what each of these truly mean, and that were more than just the initial two reactions, it opened up a whole new world of self-awareness and understanding.
After much research, working with a therapist, and my own self-assessment, it was evident that I engage in neither Fight nor Flight, but rather a hybrid of two additional “F’s”, Freeze and Fawn. So that makes me a Trauma Response type of Freeze-Fawn.
Pete Walker’s book breaks down what all 4 trauma responses are, and I encourage you to check it out for not only Freeze and Fawn, but also for great insight on Fight or Flight. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the Freeze-Fawn response.
Here’s a brief break down of the Freeze and Fawn trauma responses:
Freeze: Many “freeze” types unconsciously believe that people and danger are synonymous, and that safety lies in solitude*. Basically if confronted with a stressful situation, we are unable to Fight or Run, so we just Freeze and often Dissociate on the spot. So rather than put ourselves through that, we just try to avoid it altogether. *The freeze response, also known as the camouflage response, often triggers the individual into hiding, isolating and eschewing human contact as much as possible.
Fawn: Trying to talk your way out of a stressful situation. Rather than Fight, Run, or Freeze on the spot, we decide to reason or rationalize the situation. This can be anything from flattering the abuser, cringing in obedience, attempting to please and seek favor, offering alternatives; doing whatever we have to do to save ourselves by talking our way out.
Freeze-Fawn is a common hybrid response to stress for many abuse survivors. Again, everyone is different and there is no right or wrong defensive response to trauma. “We are who we are”, and that’s okay!
Trigger Warning: Be kind to yourself as you read on; I will recount some specific times of my abuse and my thoughts during those events.
As survivors, we were groomed to not fight back. Possibly either because the abuser threatened us, someone we know, or even our family pets with physical harm if we ever told anyone what was happening. By that very threat, we can be immediately traumatized and unable to fight back, run away, or confide in anyone for fear of repercussions. Especially as children, who are very easily influenced by those they feel they can trust.
That broken trust, which may have happened in an instant the first time the abuse took place, can stick with us well into adulthood. A child’s mind is so impressionable at a young age, and a learned response of “keep your mouth shut or I’ll make sure you regret it” is unbelievably traumatizing.
It doesn’t have to just be in the form of threats though, for example my abuser didn’t threaten me or someone I know with bodily injury, but he did threaten me by playing on my need to fit in, my desire to have friends, and be with cool kids who would protect me. He knew that I loved his little blue mini-bike, and so he also threatened to not take me for rides anymore if I ever told anyone. Then there’s the, “everybody does it, it’s what cool kids do” speech that he gave me every time I tried to resist or if he felt like I needed to be reminded of who was in charge and how important his needs were.
Let’s not forget about Dissociation either; during trauma our minds took us away from being fully, emotionally present as a way to protect us from what was happening. Looking back, every time he abused me, I can see where I was Dissociating and freezing on the spot, just waiting for it to end.
As you can see, a Freeze response of just going with the flow, blending in, not letting on that anything was wrong was a learned response to trauma.
What about Fawn; this is where I also default too, in combination with Freeze. I didn’t fight or run, but I would freeze and dissociate, or sometimes I would try to talk my way out of it.
I can remember times when I would try to reason with my abuser by saying things like: “Can’t I just go now, I promise I’ll come back and stay longer next time”. “I won’t say a word, I promise!” or “It really hurts, please let me go and I promise to be tougher next time and not cry”.
I tried to use every angle and reason that my mind would offer at such a young age, but to no avail. I can’t honestly say that I recall any of those tactics actually working, but it’s all I could do, so that’s what I did. Even now, recalling these memories, it’s important to not shame myself for what I wasn’t capable of handling back then.
As a child, I was quite analytical, and a very complex thinker, and that has followed me through to adulthood. While that does serve me well at times; such as in my current career, it also has its downside. Being an over thinker is emotionally draining, as is trying to prepare for every situation before it happens, or talk my way out of a stressful situation. It definitely takes a toll on you, and if you are an over thinker, you can relate I’m sure.
Perhaps you are a Freeze-Fawn as well, or maybe you react differently. There is no right or wrong way, as we are all unique and that’s okay. I would love to hear your thoughts on what you feel your responses are. As always, I encourage you to leave comments or contact me directly anytime.
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