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Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn? What is ‘Trauma’?

There is the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response that our ‘reptilian’ brain kicks into gear within milliseconds to give us the greatest chance to survive whatever trauma we are experiencing.

When one hears the word ‘trauma’ it can evoke a response of fear, concern, silence, and secrecy. Trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience”, or defined in the medical field as “physical injury”. When one receives a traumatic injury to the head, that can perhaps mean mentally or physically.

As an individual trauma therapist I am often asked how I define ‘trauma’. The answer to me is simple: what I would consider traumatic may not be what you consider traumatic, and therefore it is up to you to define the content. What categorizes it as trauma to me, is if your brain was triggered into a survival mode while you were having that experience.

When we are in that traumatic moment, experiencing it in real time, our brains do something incredible: they think and act for us before we can think it through.

Fight Response

Fight response is that we physically, emotionally, verbally, or mentally challenge whatever we are experiencing. Our brain believes keeping us in the vicinity of the trauma allows us the greatest chance to save ourselves.

Freeze Response

Freeze response is when our brains turn off, our bodies are still, and/or we act invisible because fight or flight isn’t an option. If we stay this way, we can endure the traumatic experience in a
manageable way.

Fawn Response

Fawn response is when fight or flight responses are not optional and freeze would not lessen the traumatic impact. Instead, we decide to go along with whatever is happening in hopes that we can eventually get to a place where we could engage in fight or flight.

These responses are hardwired in us to serve as a survival function and were meant to require no conscious thought. Since these responses are made without time to think, it is extremely hard to process why we do what we do when we are experiencing trauma. It often leads to not only the trauma being unprocessed, but confusion around why we acted the way we did during the

These two parts are what I work with people on to process. Trauma is anything that can range from one negative thought as a child to a major car accident yesterday. It all depends on how you define it, how you responded to it, and what you’d like to understand about it.

Kristina Anderson LMCHA

Colleen Hilton CO-FOUNDER &
Colleen Hilton is the founder & CEO of Acuity Counseling, and a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with over 14 years of... Read More
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