The 4 Main Trauma Responses & How to Recognize Your Dominant One + How to Use Self-Regulation & A Neurocycle to Heal Trauma

When we experience any kind of trauma, we can respond to the threat in various ways to cope. We are all familiar with the fight or flight response, but there are actually four main trauma responses, which are categorized as “the four F’s of trauma”: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. In this podcast (episode #302) and blog, I will talk about these different trauma responses, and how to manage them in the moment using self-regulation and mind-management techniques. Although recent research indicates there may be two more trauma responses common to human beings, I am just going to concentrate on the main four for this podcast. 

These main trauma responses are actual neural structures that get built into our brain as “thought trees.” The experience triggers the response with all its memories, including the knowledge, data  and emotions that are attached to the memories like branches and leaves on a tree. The more intense the experience, the more energy and strength the thought tree has.

When this happens, the brain sends a message to all the cells of the body about this thought tree, so the memory is stored in the body as well. The more this trauma pattern is activated/triggered, the stronger it gets. This means that when anything similar happens to us, the predictive pattern will “switch on” in our mind, brain and body, and we can automatically revert to it, which strengthens it further.

Knowing about these trauma responses can help you see how you are responding to trauma triggers, which will, in turn, help you recognize the warning signals of how they are showing up in your life and what they mean for you. This will enable you to reconceptualize (reimagine/rewire) them into a pattern that works for you and not against you. Over time, you can work on healing your trauma; you do not have to let it take up any more room in your life. You do not have to default to unhealthy trauma responses that keep you stuck.

As mentioned above, the four types of trauma responses are: fight, flight, freeze or fawn. You may have one or more of them at different times and under different circumstances:

  • The flight response can be defined as getting away from the situation as quickly as possible.
  • The fight response can be defined as pure self-preservation.
  • The freeze response can be defined as pausing instead of running.
  • The fawn response can be defined as keeping someone happy to neutralize the threat. 

These trauma responses can show up in either a healthy or unhealthy way. For instance, an unhealthy fight response may result in increased aggressive behavior, while a healthy fight response may be the desire to set and maintain healthy relationship boundaries. An unhealthy flight response, on the other hand, may be to become a workaholic to avoid confrontation, while a healthy flight response may be to exit an unhealthy relationship.

  • Unhealthy flight responses can include obsessive or compulsive tendencies, needing to stay busy all the time, panic, constant feelings of fear, perfectionism, workaholic tendencies, and the inability to sit still. Healthy flightresponses can include being able to disengage from harmful conversations, leave unhealthy relationships, remove yourself from physical danger, and properly assess danger.
  • Unhealthy fight responses can include controlling behaviors, narcissistic tendencies, bullying, conduct disorder, demanding perfection from others, and feelings of entitlement. Healthy fight responses can include establishing firm boundaries, being assertive, finding courage, becoming a strong leader, and protecting yourself and loved ones.
  • Unhealthy freeze responses can include dissociation, isolation, frequent zoning out, brain fog, difficulty making decisions, difficulty taking actions or getting things done, fear of achieving, or fear of trying new things. Healthy freeze responses can include mindfulness, awareness, and full presence in the moment.
  • Unhealthy fawn responses can include codependent relationships, staying in violent relationships, loss of self, destructive people-pleasing, or few or no boundaries. Healthy fawn responses can include compassion for others, compromise, active listening, and a sense of fairness.

The first step in managing any response awareness—we must feel to heal. Often, these four types of trauma responses, if they manifest as unhealthy responses, can keep us stuck. But, by becoming aware of them, we can understand them and learn how to make them work for us and not against us. We can start doing this by switching them from unhealthy to healthy trauma responses through the process called reconceptualization, which I describe in detail below.

When you learn how to mind-manage a trauma response when triggered, you can choose what will work best for you to help you get through the situation. This will give you a sense of agency and control, which will further empower you to take control of your life. To this end, I recommend doing a Neurocycle, which is the 5-step mind-management system I have developed over the past 38 years, and is based on my research and practice. (I discuss this in detail in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Messmy app Neurocycle and in my recent clinical trials.) The 5 steps are:   

1. Gather awareness of your trauma response. 

  • What are your emotional warning signals?
  • What are your physical warning signals?
  • What are your behavioral warning signals?
  • Which of the four f’s of trauma, or what combination, are you in?

2. Reflect

  • What is the pattern you have developed to cope with your trauma? What are you doing and how are you responding specifically?
  • Does your response serve you well in your relationships?
  • Do you need to change it? 
  • Where is the trauma that this response is coming from? (It’s ok if you can’t answer that now, it’s good enough to know it’s a response to an underlying cause. You can work on this separately over 63 day cycles to find the roots of the trauma and embrace, process and reconceptualize them). 

3. Write 

Write what you have gathered and reflected on to help organize your thinking.

4. Recheck

Look at what you have written, and see if you can reconceptualize the trauma response, - that is, shift it to a healthy response - by finding what I call the “antidote”. For example, you can say something like “This place still makes me sad, but it doesn’t hurt anymore; I don’t see myself as the one who is always being left; rather, I am the one who was willing to stay.” 

5. Active reach

What is an anchoring action or statement you can quickly do and say to yourself when a trauma response is triggered? For example, you can say something like “I am going to put on my imaginary suit of armor, practice deep breathing to control my panic, and then I am going to stop pacing, sit down and assess the situation to see what has made me panic. I will ask someone I trust to help me, like a therapist or counselor.”

For more on managing the different trauma responses, listen to my podcast (episode #302), and check out my latest book, Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).

To learn more about how to manage your mental health and help others, join me at our 7th Annual Mental Health Solutions Retreat, December 2-4, 2021! The core focus of this conference is to give you simple, practical, applicable, scalable, and scientific solutions to help you take back control of your mental health, help others, and make impactful changes in your community. You will also learn how to manage the day-to-day stressors of life as well as those acute stressors that blindside us. Our goal is to address your most pressing mental health concerns, help you find answers, and equip you with the knowledge and resources you need to make the change from a life of barely surviving to one where you are thriving. Register today at drleafconference.com and save $50! 

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Podcast Highlights

3:25, 5:00 The different types of trauma

4:00 Trauma is trauma, no matter how small or big

4:15, 7:40 How trauma impacts us 

4:40 The trauma response as a coping mechanism 

5:30 How our experiences impact our brain & body 

10:30 The predictive nature of a trauma response 

12:55, 28:30 How to use mind management to make the trauma response work for you, not against you

15:00 The difference between unhealthy & healthy trauma responses 

28:28 Why we need to feel to heal 

29:00, 32:00 What it means to understand & deal with trauma

This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.

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