The Four F’s of Trauma Response: How They Can Mess Up Our Relationships

The Four F’s of Trauma Response: How They Can Mess Up Our Relationships

Fight. Flight. Freeze. You have probably heard about the first three F’s of trauma response. These responses get activated during stressful events, and they help us survive. Not only do these responses help humans survive, these responses help animals survive as well. When an antelope is about to be attacked by a lion, stress hormones flood the antelope’s body to help increase his speed so he is able to flee and escape with his life (flight). A male lion defends his territory against other males by using the fight response. Chickens are known to go into shock when being attacked by another animal (freeze). These trauma responses have been studied for a long time now, but the fourth trauma response, fawn, has only recently been studied, and seems to be unique to humans. Fawning in humans involves gaining the affection of an abuser in order to survive. Fawning is the mechanism at play in Stockholm syndrome when victims fall in love with their attacker or kidnapper. The fawn response is how we have come to better understand the unofficial diagnosis of Complex PTSD. Complex PTSD and The Four F’s of Trauma Response has been written about extensively by Pete Walker in his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma” (click link to purchase on Amazon). Unlike traditional PTSD, Complex PTSD is the result of experiencing long-term, daily trauma such as hearing parents argue or become violent on a daily basis, or being emotionally or physically abused for the majority of your formative years. Complex PTSD has been linked to a number of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc. It is no surprise then that the four F’s of trauma response can mess up your relationships in significant ways. Here is how.

Fight: Individuals who use this trauma response as their primary coping mechanism may tend to be argumentative and aggressive. They may even be defensive and always on guard, looking for an opportunity to make their voice and opinions heard. Individuals with this coping style may compulsively feel the need to be “top dog” or dominant in most social situations. Their fight response can also translate into physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse. They have a “me against the world” or “my way or the highway” attitude. People who use this response (which it is important to note that using this response is not necessarily voluntary, it is automatic) could very much benefit from mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness helps slow down the cycle of thinking, feeling, and then acting. A Netflix documentary called “The Mind Explained” shows inmates convicted of violent crimes participating in mindfulness meditation. The inmates reported being able to control their words and actions more once they are triggered, and therefore had a greater chance of not being convicted again once released from prison. A couple where one individual is abusive would be able to slow down and think before reacting and harming their partner if they were to practice mindfulness daily.

Flight: This response can look somewhat different in humans than it does in animals. While we may not be running from lions, tigers, and bears these days, there are other stressors in our daily lives that may trigger a flight response. Some examples include bills, financial worries, an argument with your significant other just to name a few. In humans, the flight response can be a literal running away, like moving to another country, or it can be constant busyness. Workaholism can be linked to the flight response, as those who engage in this type of coping often report feeling a sort of numbing out by staying busy. This can leave their partners feeling neglected, and it can leave relationship problems unresolved for a long time due to sheer avoidance. In addition to mindfulness, individuals who engage in the flight response would be wise to make sure they are balancing their work and home lives, as well as using deliberate good communication with their partners without fleeing.

Freeze: This response is when an individual is able to numb out or “change the emotional channel” in their brains. I have seen individuals who freeze in my therapy office. I will think we are getting somewhere, or that we are on the verge of an emotional breakthrough. They will then simply blink and the emotion in the room changes, and they change the subject and move on. This is not advantageous to these individuals, as healing requires an emotional catharsis in order to take place. These individuals may not allow for negative or sad emotions anywhere in their lives, which results in them not really being able to feel at all. The thing about emotions is that they demand to be felt, and if you cut off one emotion, you cut them all off. So someone who shuts down sadness will not be able to feel joy either. Individuals with this trauma response can also release the same chemicals in their body that help calm animals when death is imminent. These chemicals are sedating, and freeze users can call upon them when they are triggered. This can cause their partners to feel as if they don’t realty know the person using the freeze response. The freeze response eliminates authenticity. Freeze users will also turn to screens as a way to numb out; you will often see their heads in their phones, watching TV, or on the computer. This is another means of changing the emotional channel. In order to heal, freeze users need to learn to feel their emotions, which can suddenly emerge with brute force. Doing so in a safe environment, such as therapy, is often the best course of action, as sometimes emotions they have been repressing can result in increased suicidal thoughts, which a therapist can help them manage and heal.

Fawn: The fawn response is the mechanism used in Stockholm syndrome, which was originally coined to explain what happened when those who were kidnapped would fall in love with their captors. In relationships, this is responsible for why battered women (or men) often stay with their abusers. Their bodies get flooded with the love hormone, oxytocin when they are around their abusers. This causes the abused to fall in love in order to increase chances of survival. The biological function of this is to also inspire love in the abuser, so that they are less likely to be abusive. This often isn’t the case, however, and many go on being abused for years, stuck in this cycle. People who use this response are also chronic people pleasers. They may even change aspects of their personality depending on what the situation warrants, or depending on who they are associating with at the time. Even in healthy relationships the fawn response can be used, leaving partners to feel unsure of what their partner really wants or needs. Fawn users can wake up one day and realize that their life isn’t really what they wanted at all, which can come as a shock to their partner in a healthy relationship. The fawn user can really benefit from mindful time spent alone. During this alone time, it is important that the fawn user pays attention to what stimuli brings them happiness, joy, and inspiration, as well as what brings them discomfort, disgust, ambivalence, or boredom. Fawn users are often very out of touch with their feelings, preferring instead to focus on the feelings and wants of others. They often confuse these feelings and wants of others as their own. Alone time can help them get more in tune with themselves, which is the key to recovery.

The four Fs of trauma response can range from mild to severe. While in moderation they can be useful, it is in excess that they cause trouble. We can also run into trouble when we favor one response over the others, and use that response for all situations, even when it is inappropriate or unhelpful to do so. They can mess up our relationships because they are automatic responses that take on a life of their own. Recovery from these trauma responses takes time and willingness to look at one’s self honestly. Therapy is a great place to begin this healing process. I am now talking in-person or teletherapy clients in the state of Nevada. Email me at to start our conversation about your recovery today.

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