Responses to Trauma: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn

You’ve likely heard of fight, flight, or freeze as responses to a threat. The fourth option, fawn, is less commonly taught. Also known as The Four Fs of trauma, these are automatic coping mechanisms for actual and/or perceived experiences of an activating, stressful, or traumatic event.

Let’s break these terms down even further.


If your nervous system is in fight, you are likely standing up to assert yourself in response to a threat or other activating event. A fight response is an active reaction to the fear insighted by the circumstances.

It can look like combinations and variations of the following:

  • Unstable temper, emotionally reactive (often out of proportion to the event)
  • Aggressive and domineering body language
  • Unclear and confusing in the overall message
  • Being rigid or inflexible
  • Loud tone of voice
  • Urgent or demanding
  • Ignoring the wants/needs of others
  • Individual(s) may feel defensive during and then shameful after an outburst

It can be channeled to be a healthy way to reinforce boundaries through assertive communication rather than aggressive and unstable tendencies. Practicing intentional pauses in moments of escalation and conflict, utilizing breathing exercises, or engaging in other forms of self-soothing can help moderate the fight response.


Flight looks more like escaping or avoiding the activating event rather than confronting it head-on. In a healthy variation, this allows individuals to discern when it is appropriate to disengage, but when it is an automatic response to all conflict it can lead to isolation and extremely low distress tolerance.

It can look like combinations and variations of the following:

  • Constantly rushing
  • High anxiety, sometimes panic attacks
  • Inability to sit in silence
  • Need for control and perfection
  • Micromanaging projects
  • Being in and out of relationships frequently, especially when conflict arises
  • Avoiding downtime by always staying busy
  • Overscheduling or overcommitting
  • Martyrdom or Self-Sacrificing: “I’m just so busy I never have time for myself”

In response to the tendency to avoid or escape feelings of discomfort, you can engage in reflective work. Increasing your awareness of the body can be helpful to pinpoint where you physically feel anxiety. Then you can move away from the automatic response to run away from these emotions and instead respond to them accordingly. Ideally, this leads to fully recognizing and processing the emotional experience.


This one may seem self-explanatory… In reality, a freeze response can resemble dissociative experiences where you are disconnected from your emotional experience. Your brain is compartmentalizing so well that you don’t have access to your emotions. This is to protect you and allow you time to decide whether fight or flight would be better.

It can look like combinations and variations of the following:

  • Feeling numb
  • Procrastinating any matter of decision making
  • Disorientation (not knowing time/place)
  • Shutting down mentally/verbally/physically
  • Hiding from others
  • Isolating
  • Avoidance of coping via technology (mindless binging or scrolling)
  • Experiencing a disconnect with reality, out of body experience
    • Things may be happening but you don’t feel like you are present in the moment

When you intentionally slow down your reaction to a situation to think it through logically, a temporary freeze can be beneficial. When this trauma response is instinctive or reactive, however, it can be immobilizing and scary.


Fawn is another form of avoidance, this time via people-pleasing. This trauma response aims to preserve the self by pleasing the instigator, abuser, or person in a position of power (real or perceived).  It has the superficial benefit of seeming “easy-going” and can result in shallow interpersonal relationships that center on being liked.

It can look like combinations and variations of the following:

  • People-pleasing behavior
    • Overly polite
    • Hyperaware of everyone else’s needs
    • Appeasing others at the expense of the self
  • Feeling disconnected from own wants/needs/values to the point where it is difficult to offer your opinion even when asked
  • Letting others make the decisions
  • Lack of boundaries
  • Dependent on others, difficulty with independent direction
  • Uncertainty and need for input from others

In combatting this maladaptive coping mechanism, it is helpful to consider boundaries. Porous boundaries are not healthy boundaries. A practice of people-pleasing can lead to the deterioration of relationships over time as it is fertile ground for resentment to grow.

Remember: These responses are survival mechanisms with the goal of self-preservation. They initially served a purpose, most likely to keep us safe. Now that you are no longer in that situation, or perhaps you are ready to move out of that situation, you can adapt these automatic reactions to stress into developmentally appropriate responses. It all starts with awareness.


About Jasmine Payne: 

Jasmine is a Resident in Counseling and provides services at the Fredericksburg location. She is a two-time graduate of Longwood University, receiving her B.S. in Psychology along with an M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

Throughout her graduate studies, Jasmine worked with teens and adults who belonged to various minority and multicultural populations. She also has familiarity with a wide spectrum of mental health concerns including anxiety/depression, grief, moodiness, self-improvement, motivation, relationship issues, and many more. To learn more about Jasmine, visit HERE

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