This page is focused on responses you may have during or immediately following a trauma/dangerous situation. This differs from the "trauma reactions" page which focuses on long-term reactions you have after a trauma. A lot goes on in our brains on a subconscious level that is difficult if not impossible to think about and control. Our bodies are instinctually wired to respond to events we perceive as dangerous. When we become nervous, we may be more jumpy. Our heart rate may go up and our stomach may feel unsettled. These sensations are caused by our brains telling our bodies that something dangerous may be about to happen, increasing levels of hormones like adrenaline and preparing for action. This is a natural and healthy process. If the situation turns out to not be dangerous, our brains stop the responses and allow us to relax. If it is, however, we may respond in a few different ways:
Fight and/or Flight
It is very possible that, in a dangerous situation, we may need to fight. We may need to push away or hit an attacker. Yelling or saying “no” can be part of the “fight” response as well. This is part of why people may get aggressive in response to feeling threatened. Fighting may not be realistic or may not be able to get us out of danger. For instance, if the threat against us is that we are about to be hit by a car, fighting isn’t likely to help. Running or jumping out of the way would give a much better chance of reducing or stopping harm to us. This is “flight”. There are many dangerous situations that we can best get out of by running away from them.
Fight and Flight are often seen as the two most basic trauma responses. To many who have never been traumatized, these are the only good responses to being in a traumatic situation such as being attacked by someone - fight the person who is attacking you or run away from them. However, sometimes a person going through a traumatic event may attempt fight or flight and still be in the situation. Sometimes they may not be able to respond in either way or feel either response is a bad one, for whatever reason. Sometimes, perhaps due to things they have learned previously, including prior traumatic events, they bypass these reactions. In such a case, there are other possible responses.
Freezing up is a trauma response that may leave an individual or others questioning the validity of their trauma. This is what can occur when our brains see a threat but determine that we cannot fight or escape. In most cases, our bodies cannot move and in some cases, we may also feel numb emotionally and physically to events. We may not be able to remember details of what happened during the time we were frozen. When this happens, endorphins are released that allow our bodies to feel more calm to handle a terrifying experience. It also allows us to block out some or all of an event that may be too difficult to process. The hope is also that if we are being attacked by someone, the lack of reaction on our part may make our attacker lose interest in us and end the traumatic situation.
If “freeze” does not end the situation, our bodies may naturally progress to the “flop” response. When we “flop”, our bodies may completely stop reacting to the traumatic event and go limp or even unconscious. In animals, this can be what is described as “playing dead.” For the one going through the trauma, this may feel like an “out of body experience” where we are not in our bodies, and are instead somewhere else or are watching from the outside. We may dissociate from the event and may have absolutely no memory of what happened during this time. This response is also designed in the hopes of causing an attacker to lose interest in us and to protect the brain from being further traumatized.
Completely blocking out and forgetting the worst parts of a traumatic event can make it easier to continue going through life “normally” after it is over, but can lead to fresh trauma when memories are recovered. The brain does this in the hope that we will be in a safer position and more able to deal with the trauma, later. For instance, you may have a better chance of surviving in an abusive situation if you cannot remember the worst traumatic events that happened there, and can therefore act and carry on with less anxiety and flashbacks than you might have if you remembered everything. If you remember the worst things after you have escaped from the situation, you may have the time and safety to discuss things with others and possibly be overcome by emotions with less risk that it could get you more harmed. Freezing up or flopping are both valid responses to trauma, and you are not alone if you experienced one or both of these responses.
In a traumatic situation involving another person, our brains may decide that our best response is what is sometimes called “Fawn,” “Friend” or “Appease.” In responding in this way, we may attempt to please an aggressor or get on their “good side” in order to get them to be less harsh or in the belief it is necessary in order to survive. We may try to make them like us more, or feel more sympathetic toward us. If someone attacks us more than once (or we have reason to believe they may), such as when we live with an abuser, we may attempt to appease them or befriend them in hopes it will defuse situations before they would attack us again or otherwise make the abuse not as bad. Sometimes we may even convince ourselves that the person is not so bad, or that they love us. This is often partially due to conditioning by our attacker, but it is also part of a complex response which aids us in attempting to please them in order to reduce harm to ourselves.
Some people outside a traumatic situation may claim it is “wrong” to have a “fawn” response, because we should always be against an attacker. They may feel we are even “betraying ourselves” by giving them something they might want. The brain’s natural responses are often most focused on reducing harm to us and increasing our chances of survival. Someone who is being attacked or in an ongoing abusive situation may see “being defiant and honest” as a luxury they cannot afford. If you had an “Appease/Friend/Fawn” response to trauma, that is completely valid and reasonable. Without that response, you might have been harmed far worse or not survived at all. You are not alone if you experienced this response, and you should feel no guilt for it.
If your body interprets a danger, any of these responses (or even more than one at once) may be a way you respond to things even if there is no actual danger. This could be anything including flashbacks, startling noises or otherwise feeling threatened. When this happens, some things you can try and do are: splashing cold water on your face, trying grounding techniques, engaging your senses (making a sensory box may be helpful for times like this), saying a mantra (usually something that talks about you being safe now), etc.
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