The Five Responses to Trauma

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Our brains have unique ways of responding to trauma when it occurs or when we re-live its memories. By understanding these, you have a better chance at overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A person may suffer from PTSD when:

  • Experiences a traumatic event.
  • Witnesses a traumatic event.
  • Hears about a traumatic event (rare).

Whatever this event may be, it has rewired the brain to feel higher levels of paranoia in ordinary circumstances. Especially when there’s something around that is a reminder of the event. For example, someone who ends up in a disastrous car crash can develop PTSD. If the car they crashed into – or were in themselves – was the color red, other red cars could cause a paranoid response in the individual.

Throughout this article, we’re going to look into five specific ways the brain reacts to trauma. These are known as the “five F’s.” At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

Our Natural Response to Threat

Before we dive into the “five F’s,” it’s important we understand why we respond to trauma the way we do.

To put it simply, our brain’s are wired for the sake of survival. If our survival is ever threatened, our brain’s naturally want us to feel a sense of threat we need to do something about.¹

A threat – whether it’s real or perceived – is first recognized in the hypothalamus. The response triggered releases stress hormones as a means of getting the body to defend itself. From there, other areas of the brain and body are alerted and we have a reaction.

This reaction almost takes full control of the brain. When our hypothalamus is initially triggered, all other thoughts (such as long-term goals or even what was happening five minutes prior) are washed away to allow the brain and body to focus on defending itself.

The Five F’s

Due to our brain and body’s natural response, we react on the surface in a certain type of way. These ways are known as the “Five F’s.”

Not everyone will experience all five F’s and, furthermore, some people may feel more than one at a time. However, from what science has so far gathered, these five reactions tend to be how people defend themselves from a threat.

1.) Fight

When a traumatic experience occurs – or when you relive a traumatic moment – do you find yourself becoming aggressive?

If so, you may naturally have a fighting response when you feel the need to defend yourself. Though the term speaks for itself, people who have a fight response usually undergo complex thinking when they feel in danger.²

It’s more than just aggression. You seek out to battle anything that can prevent you from survival. And under this kind of thought process, there appear to be a lot more threats than actually present.²

Furthermore, you may make a mistake that can result in a consequence. For example, someone with PTSD who’s reliving their trauma may accidentally hurt someone nearby through their aggression.

2.) Flight

On the other end of the spectrum, you might react by running away from the threat. This is common not only in humans but in the animal kingdom as well.

Sometimes, when a conscious animal feels threatened, their immediate response is to run to a safer place. A place that ensures their survival. For many, this is wherever they call home.

However, since humans don’t always have the ability to “run away,” it’s more common for people to slowly back away from a threat. Or, as is the case found in children, to hide from the threat.

3.) Friend

Considerably, our need for friends is one of the first defensive mechanisms we develop. From birth, we’re in need of someone to take care of us. We don’t know how to feed ourselves or clean ourselves up after a bathroom incident. Therefore, we cry until someone takes care of these necessities for us.

The idea is mirrored in adults. If something terrible happens, an adult may scream out as a means of defense. This scream is directly correlated to our cries as infants – they are the hope that we will be saved.

When people feel threatened, it is only natural for them to turn towards someone who will get rid of the threat (if that someone is available). This can be anyone from a friend to a family member to a strange who looks trustworthy enough. Social engagement protects in a variety of ways, from comfort to the other person taking charge of the fight.³

People who feel as though they don’t have someone to turn to in times of defense are at a greater risk. For no matter whether they fight or flight, they’ll always feel alone in their defense. As though the entire world is against them.

4.) Freeze

In certain situations of defense, the brain may not recognize fight, flight, or friend as options. Instead, it will recognize two other options.

One of these is freeze. You ever feel so shocked by something, you can’t help but remain motionless? This is a natural reaction of the brain found greatly in the animal kingdom.

There are some advantages certain animals have to going motionless. For example, if the prey is being hunted, the predator is less likely to know where they are if they remain immobile.

Obviously, the majority of the human population is not in a state where it feels as though it’s being hunted (though, sometimes it is). Yet, we hold onto our freeze instinct as though it’s a necessity.⁴

And we’re more likely to do so in inter-personal threats. For example, if a person is being raped, s/he may feel as though they have no control over what is happening. Fighting is out of the question if this person is physically weaker. Fleeing isn’t an option if this person is trapped. And, during horrific instances as such, there’s never a friend around to turn to.

Therefore, the body freezes in fear. It defends itself by numbing itself to remain motionless.

5.) Flop / Fawn

The other defense mechanism your body may take up is known as the flop. Usually, the body will not react in this way unless the freeze mechanism is insufficient.⁵

A flop is when all your muscle tension ceases and you are left in a “floppy” state. If we take the rape example above, the victim may find themselves having no control of their own body. Their muscles go limb and s/he loses complete control over any movement.

S/he is almost in a vegetable state where the brain and body are simply not interacting.

This defense mechanism is rarer than the other four mentioned on this list. However, it also leaves people the most vulnerable to a threat. If someone were to experience a flop state during a PTSD flashback, a state as such could make them come across as chronically ill.

Your Questions

Still have questions concerning the five responses to trauma?

We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any personal experience or knowledge on these five responses, we’d also love to hear from you.

We try to reply to each legitimate comment in a prompt and personal manner.

Reference Sources

¹ frontiers in Neuroscience: The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system

² HHS Public Access: Adrenal Responses to Stress

³ Porges, S. (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology.

⁴ HHS Public Access: Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor

⁵ Rothschild, B. (2000). The body remembers: the psychophysiology of trauma and trauma treatment. New York: Norton.

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