Beyond Fight or Flight : Understanding our Defensive Responses to Threats from a Trauma-Informed Perspective
Fight or Flight. You’ve probably heard this expression countless times. However, there’s more to our defensive responses than we previously believed. There’s actually four ways that we respond to situations that we perceive as harmful.
Whenever we discuss threat responses, the image of a distant ancestor, perhaps a caveman, facing off with a saber-toothed tiger comes to mind. The early human had a few choices. He could engage in the fight response and stand his ground and fight off the tiger, perhaps with a mighty club. He could utilize the flight response and run away – hopefully fast! In the suspense of the moment, he could also freeze, which in this scenario probably would lead to an unfavorable outcome from the human. The fourth response, fawning, is not so easily explained by the caveman and tiger imagery, so it is important to examine how these responses show up in modern society.
While we may not face the same threats as our early ancestors, humans still experience perceived threats as a part of our existence. We are less likely to encounter predators like lions and tigers and bears (oh my), in our modern society, however, these types of threats still occasionally occur. In addition, we face a new form of perceived threats through our relationships with other humans. Every relationship we have, even the most insignificant, can lead to harm. Your romantic partner(s) could break your heart. Your best friend may introduce you to their new friend who could potentially take your place. Your boss could fire you. The grocery store clerk may ring you up for the price of organic apples, when you damn well sure picked out the non-organic on-sale apples. The list goes on…
While some of these examples may seem silly, it is important to remember that perception is everything. While one situation may not seem threatening to you, it may be terrifying for someone else, and therefor your response to the stimuli may vary completely. Here’s a practical example to illustrate my point…
The other day I was scrolling through my instagram feed when I saw a photo set of one of my dearest friends jumping out of a plane. Just scrolling through the images of her skydiving was enough to make my heart race. If someone told me I would need to free fall from 10,000 feet, you can bet any amount of money that I would kick and scream and fight with all of my power to get out of that situation. And yet, my friend jumped willingly, with a smile on her face.
Was my friend still scarred? Sure. However, our perception of the threat is completely different, therefor our response to the stimuli was also dissimilar. An understanding of threat perception is important to keep on hand as we explore each threat response in greater depth.
The fight response exists today in multiple forms. Individuals may exhibit very similar behaviors to our early ancestors by engaging in physical altercations when confronted with a stimuli, which is “a thing that rouses activity or energy in someone or something; a spur or incentive”, that they perceive to be a threat. They may punch, kick, and claw in an attempt to ward off the undesired stimuli. Alternatively, individuals engaging in the fight response may utilize other means to gain power over a situation. They might become argumentative or even yell and scream. When we think of the fight response, we likely are picturing someone who is angry. That anger stems from some point in their lives when they felt hurt or powerless. The fight response allows the individual to gain back a sense of power of their situation, and perhaps attempt to repair a time when they once lacked power.
The flight response, similar to the fight response, occurs in different forms. Of course, we can literally run away from our perceived threats and problems. However, the flight response also encompasses avoidance behaviors. Avoidance comes in many forms; delaying action, preoccupation, and sometimes flat out ignoring the perceived threat. The flight response allows for the individual to escape from their perceived threat in the present moment.
Think about a opossum in headlights - this imagery perfectly depicts the freeze response. The fear response results in individuals feeling paralyzed by their fear of a perceived stressor. Similar to the flight response, individuals who tend to freeze likely disassociate, or disconnect their mind from their body in the present moment. However, unlike the flight response, during the freeze response individuals do not become preoccupied with other tasks, but instead remain stuck.
Many people may not be aware of the fawn response to threats and stressors. Individuals who engage in fawning behavior tend to mold themselves into whatever they think they’re perceived threat would like them to be. They engage in flattery, helping behaviors, and over accommodate their threat in order to avoid being the target of an “attack”. I suppose a cave man could fawn over the saber-toothed tiger’s shiny coat… but I’d hate to see how that would end up.
The way that we respond to situations that we perceive as threatening is shaped by our early childhood experiences. According to Pete Walker, M.A., MFT, “Individuals who experience "good enough parenting" in childhood arrive in adulthood with a healthy and flexible response repertoire to danger. In the face of real danger, they have appropriate access to all of their choices”.
When humans are able to easily access their variant responses to stress, they tend to experience fewer negative consequences and lasting impact from potentially harmful situations. According to Pete Walker, M.A., MFT, “When utilized appropriately in the face of specific threats, each stress response may be beneficial. Easy access to the fight response insures good boundaries, healthy assertiveness and aggressive self-protectiveness if necessary. Untraumatized individuals also easily and appropriately access their flight instinct and disengage and retreat when confrontation would exacerbate their danger. They also freeze appropriately and give up and quit struggling when further activity or resistance is futile or counterproductive. [Untraumatized individuals] fawn in a liquid, "play-space" manner and are able to listen, help, and compromise as readily as they assert and express themselves and their needs, rights and points of view.”
Unfortunately, some people do not leave childhood unscathed by deep emotional wounds. When children are exposed to serious and ongoing trauma in their early years, they tend to become fixated with either one or two specific trauma responses. These responses to trauma become innate and reflexive, so even as an adult, the individual may not have access to all of the potential responses to threats. To learn more about how traumatic occurrences during childhood shape adult responses to perceived threats, I suggest you read The 4Fs: A Trauma Typology in Complex PTSD by Pete Walker, M.A., MFT.
Trauma Work & Healing to Develop Flexible & Appropriate Responses to Perceived Threats
Comprehending an individual’s early traumatic experiences allows us to cultivate empathy and better understand the reasoning behind some of their behaviors. However, this does not mean that an individual cannot adapt and change their responses to perceived threats.
Therapy, particularly trauma work, can help to both understand and then heal the core emotional wounds that resulted in a traumatized individual’s rigid responses to threatening stimuli.
By no means is this work quick, or easy. However, establishing therapeutic rapport with a trusted counselor, exploring the origins and consequences of these emotional wounds, developing insight, and establishing intentional changes in thought patterns and behaviors can yeild truly life changing results.
Meet the author : Noelle Benach, LGPC
Noelle Benach, LGPC, joined Space Between Counseling Services in August of 2017 as a graduate student intern. Today Noelle works as both a therapist and office manger at SBCS.
Noelle is passionate about working with Baltimoreans, particularly premarital & pre-commitment couples, members of the LGBT+ community and those facing transitional periods in life.
When she's not working with her clients, Noelle enjoys spending time outdoors and at home with her fiancé and their corgi, two cats and bearded dragon. Noelle is a self-proclaimed "foodie" and a lover of true crime podcasts.