What are trauma responses?

Trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Symptoms of trauma include trauma responses. These various trauma responses may have been learned as a means of survival in childhood, abusive relationships, or severe trauma. The type of response then reoccurs later in life as a default every time the person faces anything they perceive as a threat.

Four types of trauma responses:

  • The flight response can be defined as getting away from the situation as quickly as possible.
  • The fight response can be defined as pure self-preservation.
  • The freeze response can be defined as pausing instead of running.
  • The fawn response can be defined as keeping someone happy to neutralize the threat. 

Each trauma response serves a natural purpose but over time they can become maladaptive when under extreme traumatic stress for long periods of time 

What is considered Healthy vs. unhealthy?

  • Unhealthy flight responses can include obsessive or compulsive tendencies, needing to stay busy all the time, panic, constant feelings of fear, perfectionism, workaholic tendencies, and the inability to sit still. Healthy flight responses can include being able to disengage from harmful conversations, leave unhealthy relationships, remove yourself from physical danger, and properly assess danger.
  • Unhealthy fight responses can include controlling behaviors, narcissistic tendencies, bullying, conduct disorder, demanding perfection from others, and feelings of entitlement. Healthy fight responses can include establishing firm boundaries, being assertive, finding courage, becoming a strong leader, and protecting yourself and loved ones.
  • Unhealthy freeze responses can include dissociation, isolation, frequent zoning out, brain fog, difficulty making decisions, difficulty taking actions or getting things done, fear of achieving, or fear of trying new things. Healthy freeze responses can include mindfulness, awareness, and full presence in the moment.
  • Unhealthy fawn responses can include codependent relationships, staying in violent relationships, loss of self, destructive people-pleasing, or few or no boundaries. Healthy fawn responses can include compassion for others, compromise, active listening, and a sense of fairness.

What can be done to manage trauma responses?

  • Learn relaxation techniques: Techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep abdominal breathing can help in counteracting the stress responses and allow the body to enter a calmer state.
  • Engage in physical exercises: Engaging in physical activity is another way to promote calmness in the body. The benefits of regularly exercising have been long mentioned in the research such as increasing endorphins and decreasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Seek social support: Finding support from the people around you can help reduce psychological and physiological reactions to perceived threats. Research has found evidence for support by listing benefits such as providing a sense of safety and protection, which in turn helps you feel less stressed and fearful.
  • Gain awareness of triggers: When we can understand what triggers our trauma responses, it leaves us in a better position to understand our responses and create new, healthier coping strategies to deal with the threat or trigger.
  • Practice self-compassion: It is also important to not judge your trauma responses or feel ashamed of them. Recognize that these responses, at one point, served as your understanding of the best way to cope with a threat. With an open mind, gain an understanding that our trauma responses may not seem to always be useful in protecting us, the way they did in the past, in current non-threatening situations.
  • Therapy: suggestions would be getting in touch with a trauma-informed care mental health provide for thorough assessment. Effective treatment modalities include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), Trauma focused Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). Some medications for depression may reduce the symptoms of complex PTSD. These medicines may be especially effective in combination with psychotherapy.

Always consult with your doctor and mental health care provider if you feel you may have any of the symptoms outlined above. Communicate this information as best as you can to your provider to further discuss treatment planning, any medication adjustments, self-soothing, or cope ahead planning.

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