The 4 Trauma Responses
The 4F trauma responses represent a way of thinking about trauma and the different ways it can show up in the aftermath of severe abandonment, abuse, and neglect. This “trauma typology” was introduced by CPTSD expert Pete Walker, LMFT. I love this framework because it provides the language for the confusing and distressing emotions, urges, and phobic fears that can show up in survivors of childhood abuse and neglect.
Each of your 4F responses exists on a spectrum, representing healthy and useful functioning on one end (this is usually people who haven’t had complex trauma, or who have done a lot of healing work). On the other end of the spectrum is overuse or fixation in one or more of these areas, and that’s when these become TRAUMA responses. Staying in the enactment of trauma responses takes a major toll on the nervous system, relationships, identity, and emotional health—and that’s only scratching the surface. If this is you, I want so badly for you to find relief. You’ve already suffered enough emotional toll from the original trauma, and I know how hard it is to break out of no longer-useful trauma response patterns.
"Your trauma response is NOT YOUR FAULT, and neither was the trauma. We never choose to be traumatized—yes, even if you made mistakes that you regret. Your mistakes did not cause the trauma—the person who traumatized you caused the trauma." -
- Dr. Ruth Gatt
It can be maddening trying to correct your trauma responses when your nervous system is protesting so loudly against every effort you make—this is exactly what happens after trauma. First, your brain is rewired to cope with the trauma. Next, it got used to a new reality (hyperarousal, 4F response pattern, defining who and what was dangerous or safe). If you’re out of the trauma environment now, your brain doesn’t know how to recalibrate because it was in the trauma for so long.
I want to acknowledge how frustrating this is, and I want to honor the infinite wisdom of your brain in choosing these trauma responses, because they kept you as safe as your brain knew how to, and that deserves respect. It was never possible to keep yourself entirely safe if your environment was traumatic—that was your caregivers’ responsibility. You could not have changed that. Your brain did the BEST IT COULD with limited choices and resources. In no way am I minimizing the pain you went through and might still be going through; both can be true at the same time. I’m here for you. 🤍
Trauma Response vs Pathology
Before we dive into the 4 trauma responses, I want to get really clear about what these responses are NOT.
Unfortunately, I’ve often seen trauma treated as a pathological disorder, which has all sorts of nasty implications. This is partially due to the negative connotations around pathology, and partially due to the definition itself. Let’s take a look.
Here’s what google has to say about pathology:
Pathology refers to the “manifestation of disease” in the body or mind. Pathology is a “mental or social abnormality or malfunction.”
Ouch. Notice how this feels in your body and mind when you slow down and read this again. Those emotions and sensations are not pathological—they’re natural responses to something that has just happened (e.g., being asked to read these definitions of pathology, which may stir up anxiety, fear, irritation, boredom, etc. 🙄).
How is trauma different? It’s simple. Trauma refers to “a wound or sustained injury” on the body or mind.
The way that you think about trauma will likely change the way you approach it. This is just human nature. So let’s move away from this damaging framework for trauma as pathology. Most often, the folks who I see adopt this notion are those who are already coping with Complex Trauma! This can really slow down therapeutic progress in treating Complex PTSD, since toxic shame is already such a common symptom.
Why is all this important?
Because your trauma response is NOT YOUR FAULT, and neither was the trauma. We never choose to be traumatized—yes, even if you made mistakes that you regret. Your mistakes did not cause the trauma—the person who traumatized you caused the trauma. TRAUMA RESPONSES ARE NOT PATHOLOGICAL. They are neurobiological, survival-driven, idiosyncratic strategies designed by your brainstem just for you, to help you make it through the emotional abuse or neglect that no child should ever have to endure.
I mean, Wow. Are you impressed with your brain, just a bit? I know I am. It was there looking out for you even when you felt helpless, scared, and alone. Please, please, please, tell that inner critic to step aside so you can receive that warmth and love, and appreciation for yourself. You are so worth it.
Like all the 4F responses, Fight is an attempt to feel safe in a world that has not been. The Fight response is considered the “narcissistic” defense—this means it’s the ultimate self-protective response style, not necessarily that anyone who uses this response is a narcissist (although the Fight response is usually predominant for people with a lot of narcissistic traits). This style is characterized by efforts to use personal power to control others, which is seen as an unconscious attempt to satisfy unmet childhood needs for unconditional love. Fight responders are unconsciously driven by the belief that power and control can create safety and ensure that they are never again abandoned or unloved.
This can look like “not backing down” in an argument, making frequent unkind or self-focused demands, attempting to restrict or control others’ behavior, and strongly avoiding situations where they might be seen by others as weak or vulnerable. You can see why intimacy is tough here. Fight responders tend to push others away and have a difficult time building or sustaining intimacy in relationships. This is because intimate connection requires shared vulnerability, and people don’t feel safe being vulnerable when they’re being controlled, criticized, raged at, or having constant demands made that they prove their devotion or love in any number of ways. Without that feeling of mutual safety, the relationship can only go so deep. People need to know that it’s safe to be themselves, otherwise, they won’t be. That’s not a foundation that any relationship can grow on.
A note here on the spectrum that all trauma responses exist on:
We don’t want to get RID of our self-protective instincts—they are healthy and critical to our ability to set boundaries and maintain a sense of identity separate from others. It’s the polarization to the Fight response that alienates others and pushes the “Fighter” further away from the love and intimacy they crave, because their partners, friends, etc., don’t feel safe enough to have their own boundaries and needs.
The Flight type represents the “obsessive-compulsive” defense (again, not implying that all Flight types have OCD). This complex trauma response is characterized by stringent efforts toward perfectionism, and the unconscious belief that being perfect will make them finally worthy of love and acceptance. Nobody could ever be as hard on a Flight type as they are on themselves. They are driven, stretched too thin, and probably sleep-deprived. They spend lots of time on self-shaming ruminations, always trying to find a way to push themselves past the annoying limitations of a body that they are likely disconnected from, since tuning into their bodies requires slowing down, and slowing down feels unfathomably dangerous.
If you’re a flight responder, you might be really good at working toward goals, multitasking, excelling in your career or fitness, and might consider yourself “a little OCD.” Having free time might make you feel intensely guilty, fearful, or self-critical. Flight response correlates strongly with productivity enslavement, perfectionism, and unrealistic expectations for yourself and others. Relationship challenges with this trauma response happen as a result of unrealistic standards and expectations for yourself and others, which nobody can live up to. This tends to cause a sense of isolation, shame, and guilt. Breaking out of these patterns requires a willingness to slow down and accept yourself—and your human limitations.
Freezing is the classic dissociation response. Freeze responders believe that human connection is dangerous and should be avoided, because their experiences have taught them trying to connect would result in more pain than the pain of isolation. Freeze types have learned to survive by being invisible, which can lead to deep depression and hopelessness if they’re not able to climb out of the freeze and towards connection. Freezing can look like “numbing out;” excessive/mindless TV, gaming, or social media usage; ignoring problems; losing track of long periods of time; and making very few efforts to connect socially.
It’s normal for freeze responders to have very little memory of childhood or other parts of their adult history, which might indicate periods that were particularly traumatic. Oftentimes freeze responders will note that their childhood was a “blur” or memories feel “foggy” or difficult to access/articulate. In adulthood, this “blur” effect might also happen around a breakup, career change, having a child, starting a new relationship, or some other major life event or change (this event might be a new trauma, but not necessarily, as the nervous system is now primed to collapse when big things happen that stimulate that old feeling of helplessness or hopelessness).
The Fawn response represents the “codependent” defense. Fawning looks like: extreme people pleasing, difficulty with setting boundaries and a LOT of guilt when doing so, and extreme anxiety triggered by others’ being upset. Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes and needs of others, forfeiting their own needs in the hopes of finding a secure, loving attachment. Fawn types believe that the only way to keep connection is to abandon themselves in the service of others. In addition to childhood trauma and neglect, involvement in rigid or shaming religious communities can strongly contribute to the development of the Fawn response. Religious trauma adds a deeper layer of wounding for C-PTSD survivors, which is sooo important to work through during the healing process.
Fawn types tend to have a very strong and HARSH inner critic. Fawn types typically don’t believe they’re allowed to feel (let alone express) anger or blame. These emotions are seen as “sinful” or “bad,” BUT ONLY FOR THEM. Others are allowed to be angry and cast blame. Fawn types are in maximum security emotional prison. They learn to police their emotions—both private feelings and outward expression—like a warden. This warden is most often an internalized critical, scary, and/or highly emotionally immature parent.
Survivors: If you are finding yourself stuck in a trauma response and need the help of a some self-guided education to help in your recovery, we suggest taking a look at our Four Trauma Responses Mini-Course. Get a full breakdown of the trauma responses and how you can make a self-care plan for feeling calm and grounded again.
Therapists: Looking for some training on how to help your clients that are stuck in a 24/7 trauma response? We have a curated education and consultation program made with you in mind. We walk you through each of the trauma responses, what mixed types of trauma responses are out there, and how you can help your clients feel calm and grounded again. Get the support of other therapists through our consultation group! Join us at A Year of Non-Magical Thinking for Therapists today.