We all know that humans, when faced with a threat, go into fight or flight mode. The most primitive parts of our brain either choose to stare down the enemy putting us in danger, raise our weapons and attack, or run away as fast as possible. Either way, the end goal is the same: self-preservation.
For the longest time, I thought fight or flight were the only two trauma responses humans were capable of. But as it turns out, fight or flight aren’t the only two reactions we’re hardwired for when faced with a danger—whether physical or otherwise. There are two more responses: freeze and fawn, and looking back with that knowledge, it’s so obvious to see how each played a role during my husband’s too-short battle with an aggressive brain tumor. Each of the four trauma responses emerged…and each kept me safe when the danger was too great.
The “fight” trauma response is arguably the easiest to imagine: it’s the caveman raising a torch and a spear at the oncoming tiger. It’s the fireman racing into a burning building to save the family trapped inside.
In my life, it was the march into the hospital day after day, arming myself with determination and hope, and showing up at the oncologist’s office and demanding to see the doctor—even though I didn’t have an appointment, even though I knew I was being irrational and there were other patients who had tumors as serious as the one weaving its way through my husband’s brain, even though I knew the enemy I was fighting was so much more formidable than the heavy doors barring access to the medical professionals behind them. When faced with the threat of a tumor, an enemy I would never see outside an MRI image, I fought, with weapons forged in stubbornness, for a miracle cure. Fighting kept me from falling.
The flight response is the need to flee, the knee jerk reaction to run from that oncoming tiger as fast as you can. No looking back. No stopping to grab a weapon. Just go.
Flight may sometimes seem like the coward’s way out—fleeing, rather than facing the danger. But taking flight in the face of a danger is no less a sign of strength than fighting. Because sometimes fleeing takes more strength than fighting, sometimes going is so much harder than staying, and sometimes escaping means breathing, when breathing is all you need to survive.
Flight can be physical—the woman escaping with her children in the night, the refugee traveling desperate miles to find a safer home, or the metaphorical. For me, I couldn’t run in the physical sense, but I could choose to overextend myself, to add so many things to my plate that the psychological stressor—that my husband would die from this disease that so many others had died from—was left in the metaphorical, distant dust.
Freezing, which can be anything from playing dead or going numb, disassociating from the threat and the danger, is a powerful, if overlooked, survival technique. Sometimes when the tiger comes, you lie still and hope that tiger simply walks by as you hold your breath and squeeze your eyes shut, or sometimes when the tiger is too fast, and your arm is already in its jaw, the only reaction left is to disassociate from the pain, go numb until it passes. To freeze—physically, emotionally, and (or) mentally.
My experience with freezing comes to mind almost easier than any other response. The moment my husband died, I froze. There was nothing to fight. The emotional danger was all around me, in every breath and thought and moment, and there was nowhere to run. No amount of adding to my “to do” list would erase the extreme heartache of hearing that last breath, of hearing the silence that came in all those moments after. And the threat was so great, the pain like metaphorical jaws clamped around my chest. I froze, disassociated from the pain, numb against the heartache. For days. For days tears streamed down my eyes, but they were someone else’s tears.
The problem with the freeze technique, in my experience, is that eventually the freeze thaws. And sometimes the danger hasn’t disappeared.
The least known of the trauma response is fawning.
Peter Walker, the therapist who coined the term, says on his website that, “Fawn types seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.”
In nature, I’m not sure how this would look. Maybe it’s trying to win the tiger’s favor by feeding it bits of meat, hoping to ingratiate yourself. In the twenty-first century, fawning can look like people pleasing, saying “yes” when you want to say “no,” avoiding conflict, or excessive flattering of others.
After learning about trauma responses, I can fairly say this is my go-to trauma response. In the face of a danger, I want to be more helpful, more liked, more willing to bend over backward to avoid any kind of hard feelings. At the oncologist appointments, I formed friendships with the nurses, desperately wanting to be liked by anyone associated with my husband’s care. At the funeral, when all I wanted was to fall apart alone, I stood for hours surrounded by well-wishers until the physical pain of standing brought me to my knees. To protect myself, I gave all of myself to everyone else.
Trauma responses are our brain’s way of reacting to danger, to stress, controlled by our autonomic nervous system. They are automatic, appearing often before conscience choice becomes involved. And they keep us safe. No one of the four “F” responses is better than another. No one response means a person is more well-adjusted than another. Each response has its place and purpose.
What’s important is that you don’t get stuck in any one trauma response, and if you do, and it’s affecting your quality of life, you get help. And you remember, no matter what your response, you find a way to give yourself a little compassion, a little grace.