Whenever we feel that we are in danger our bodies react. How your body reacts depends on which of four possible responses your body chooses. Your body chooses and responds so quickly that you may feel yourself responding as, or even before, you are becoming aware of the danger. In todays blog I’ll discuss what those four responses are, what happens to our bodies and our behavior when in each danger response, and how having past trauma (particularly childhood trauma) impacts your response.
The four ways we respond to danger are: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. We have not always known that there were four primary responses to danger. When I was younger, I learned about the Fight/Flight response. When I went to university, I learned about the Fight/Flight/Freeze response to danger. Only recently has the idea of Fawn been added to mix. In fact, Researchers are still arguing over the validity of Fawn being its own category (some feel it’s an aspect of the Freeze response). I feel the Fawn response is unique enough to be its own category and will treat it as such in this post.
When a person experiences childhood trauma, particularly ongoing or repeated traumas, their danger response can become dysfunctional. They can become too sensitivity to danger, meaning that things that are not actually dangers are responded to as dangerous. They can shift into a danger response too frequently and too easily; it can become their default response. It can take them significantly longer to shift back to a no danger resting state. They can become more comfortable or stuck in a danger response; being on alert and on guard can feel safer and more normal than being relaxed or calm.
So, let’s define each of the four responses: What is it? What does our body do when in it? What behaviors are common when triggered into that response. And, what behaviors are common when stuck in that response.
What is it: The Fight response is all about battling your way through the danger to safety.
What’s happening in your body: When your body goes into the Fight response your body releases adrenalin and other chemicals – which makes you feel energized and ready to act. Your heart rate speeds up drastically, you start breathing faster, and your muscles ready for action, and you shift into an anger and aggression response pattern. All of your attention is on the danger, which means that you’ll become less aware of other stuff going on around you. You may not notice or hear someone trying to get your attention.
Common Immediate behavioral responses: You feel angry, you yell and become aggressive. You may make a fist, pull your arm back, or maybe even throw a punch. You may interpret everything as a threat or an attack. You may even “see red”.
Ongoing responses when chronically in: Easily angry, a hair trigger. Constant or easy frustration. You may interpret everything as an attack or danger. You may constantly be thinking about how to fight your way out of every situation. Friendships may often end because of fights (physical or verbal). You may feel like friends always turn on you or you don’t let people close because they’ll use what you share against you.
What is it: The Flight response is all about escaping the danger.
What’s happening in your body: When your body goes into the Flight response it can feel similar in some ways to the Fight response: Your body releases adrenalin and other chemicals – which makes you feel energized and ready to act. Your heart rate speeds up drastically, you start breathing faster, and your muscles ready for action. But unlike the Fight response, you shift into a more frantic “how do I get away” response pattern. Instead of shutting out everything except the danger, you become hyper alert to all possible ways to escape. You may become more aware of exits, windows, escape routes, or even people who may be able to help.
Common Immediate behavioral responses: Backing away from the danger or moving towards the exit. A feeling of being on edge and needing to get away. Actually leaving the situation, room, or building. Moving so someone or something is between you and the danger.
Ongoing responses when chronically in: You may always know where all the exits are. You may drop friends easily or withdraw from emotional connection at the first indication of danger. Your relationships and friendships may be short lived. You may feel a desire to leave or move away whenever things go wrong.
What is it: The freeze response is all about getting through what is about to happen. You have interpreted the danger to be unavoidable, unbeatable, and unstoppable, so it has become about survival.
What’s happening in your body: When your body goes into the Freeze response everything decreases. Your heart rate slows, your blood pressure decreases, your blood flow slows, and your attention may get foggy or shift away. Attention can shift to random objects or details (a water stain on the ceiling or a picture on a wall, kind of things). Your perspective of your attention can also shift (people report watching from outside of themselves or mentally going somewhere else).
Common Immediate behavioral responses: Actually “Freezing”: not moving, responding, or even thinking clearly. Experiencing the event from outside of yourself or as happening to someone else. Not remembering exactly what happened, not remembering at all, or suddenly it being over.
Ongoing responses when chronically in: The slightest danger may cause you to freeze or “go away”. Missing time or blank spots in your memory (not caused by drugs or alcohol). Loosing track of conversations or what you were doing. Friends may tell you that you “go away” or get a very distant look in your eyes and they can’t get your attention. People may act as if they know you, are a friend, and you don’t remember them.
What is it: The Fawn response is all about making the danger go away. Doing whatever it takes to make the situation safer.
What’s happening in your body: I can’t find any research explaining what’s happening in the body (this danger response is still controversial and under studied). My guess is that it’s somewhere between the Freeze response and the Flight response: An alertness to the situation and what it may take to fix it but also a gentling calming posture.
Common Immediate behavioral responses: Placating, submissive, non-threatening, appeasing behaviors meant to diffuse the situation. Apologizing or accepting blame, even when not your fault. Using humor to lighten the mood.
Ongoing responses when chronically in: A person stuck in this danger response may be called co-dependent. They are always trying to make everyone else happy or feel better. They may also be constantly trying to rescue others or fix them. They may have a very hard time standing up for themselves. Their friends may bring all their problems to them to fix. Friends may tell them to stop being a doormat or to stop letting others use them.
No-one always uses just one of these danger responses. Most people will have one the use more frequently and will use the others as appropriate. People will even respond with a mix of more than one response behaviors: They may try Flight first then shift to one of the others if that fails to work.
The body’s danger response allows it to access additional resources or survive greater harm than it could normally. To do this the danger response puts significant stress on the body. Most people without unresolved trauma histories will shift into a danger response when a danger is present then shift out of the danger response once the danger is past. Thus, the body is stressed and then recovers. People with unresolved trauma may spend a significant portion of their lives in a danger response state. This can harm their bodies and their health. In addition to the body responses listed above, there are also less noticeable changes in the body that occur when you are in a danger response: Your body decreases digestive and immune systems activity (every possible ounce of energy is shifted to immediate survival), and your blood pressure and blood sugar goes up (to increase available energy). This ongoing excessive stress is thought to explain why people with unresolved trauma histories have more health problems, are more likely to experience chronic health issues and in extreme cases can actually have significantly shorter lives than people without trauma histories.
But having an unresolved recent or childhood trauma does not doom you to living in a constant danger response nor to poor health or a shorter life. Healing from childhood, and more recent traumas, can be a major part of spending less time in a danger response mode and consequently decrease the strain on your body and help improve your health. I am a therapist in Austin Texas. I specialize in helping adults heal from difficult childhoods, childhood trauma, CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse), PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and cPTSD (complex PTSD). Contact me to schedule your free 30 minute, in person, consultation to discuss how I can help you spend less time in danger response mode.