There is no shortage of ways past trauma can show up in your present world. A scent or sound can trigger a flashback or a brief conversation with an abusive relative who is still in your life can knock you off course for days.
Your heightened reactive experiences as a result of surviving repeated or complex trauma also get ingrained in your nervous system: Your fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses may be sneaking into your current life in unexpected ways.
What Is the Fight-Flight-Freeze-Fawn Response?
When you’re exposed to trauma — like physical, emotional or sexual abuse — your nervous system automatically takes over in an effort to keep you safe.
Depending on the threat, your sympathetic nervous system may you up to fight or flee the situation. On the other hand, when that’s not possible, your parasympathetic nervous system will shut down your system and you may freeze or fawn — a people-pleasing response.
In the short-term, these automatic stress responses are adaptive — they’re part of your automatic survival instinct. But if you’re exposed to trauma over and over, your survival instincts can get stuck in the “on” position.
Humans aren’t designed to stay in a chronic state of stress and over time, these survival states can sneak into your daily life when you’re triggered due to past trauma. Some therapists have likened this to an emotional flashback.
It’s not always easy to detect when you’re having a stress response reaction because it isn’t always literal. “Flight” doesn’t just mean you hit the pavement in your best Nikes at the first sign of danger and “fight” doesn’t always mean your nemesis is about to get clocked (though it certainly could).
Because they can show up in many different ways, “flight and freeze responses are often missed,” Michael McNulty, Ph.D., a certified Gottman therapist and master trainer with the Chicago Relationship Center, said. The first step to changing how you respond to stress — and ultimately calming your reactivity — requires learning to recognize when you’re reacting due to past trauma.
Here are ways this can show up:
1. Food Cravings
Stress eating is a thing. Initially, you’ll probably miss your hunger cues because your body pumps out epinephrine (or adrenaline) to rev up the fight or flight response. When you get stuck in that place, your body releases cortisol instead. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps regulate everything from your blood sugar to your metabolism.
When your cortisol levels are elevated, research suggests your appetite and motivation to eat may increase, especially craving foods high in fat or sugar. The longer you have elevated levels of cortisol, it’s more likely eating sugary, fatty or salty foods becomes a compulsive habit. Your metabolism may also change and predispose you to maintaining a higher body weight.
The freeze response (also sometimes called the camouflage response) can be harder to detect, but one way it shows up is by isolating yourself from other people. Like dissociation, where you mentally check out of your surroundings, by isolating, you’re enacting the freeze response by checking out of contact with other people to avoid further pain.
However, humans aren’t made to stay isolated. When the freeze response manifests as isolation, you also have an increased risk of depression.
Codependency — continuously surrendering to your partner’s needs, often at your own expense — can be a byproduct of the fawn stress response. According to therapist Pete Walker, who coined the term, a fawn response gets activated when a child learns the best way to stay safe is to serve their abusive or neglectful guardians even when it’s not otherwise in your best interest.
Over time, if you’re stuck in a fawn stress response, you don’t have the chance to develop healthy boundaries and may play out your childhood role of bending over backwards to appease a partner in adult codependent relationships. However, you deserve a safe relationship that also meets your needs.
4. Intense Body Sensations
Your brain is part of your nervous system, but it’s much more complicated than that — your nervous system governs functions throughout your entire body that determine how you physically react in any situation. So it makes sense when you’re locked in a stress response years after surviving trauma, you may experience the effects of fight or flight as intense physical sensations when you’re triggered.
Flight response can be quick and huge when anger sparks. One can rage and be very harmful and destructive.
5. Obsessive/Compulsive Behaviors
Compulsive behaviors can help you avoid difficult feelings. For example, if you live with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), compulsive behaviors, like repeated checking or counting, help calm anxious obsessive thoughts.
Similarly, an obsessive-compulsive behavior pattern can occur when your flight response becomes engaged. Instead of running away physically, you “symbolically” flee the situation through obsessive-compulsive actions to manage fear.
In a toddler, this flight response might look like hyperactivity (think running around in circles). But as you age, an obsessive/compulsive behavior pattern can take other forms. Walker said process addictions such as workaholism, shopaholism or sex and love addiction, are common ways this manifests for trauma survivors.
6. Not Letting Anything Feel Permanent
When you’ve feared for your life, it’s natural to be hypervigilant about feeling trapped or cornered, even when you know you’re not in immediate danger. The flight response to avoid this can show itself when you always have a bag packed, hesitate to buy permanent furniture for your apartment or you always identify building exits no matter where you go.
An example of this is it takes someone months to unpack from moving because they always feel like they should just be ready to go. Or it being hard to throw away moving boxes for the same reason. This can look like compulsively check exit routes when in a room or building where I feel nervous.
7. Memory Loss
Many mental illnesses can cause memory loss, and so can being in a survival response state for too long. Not only does your body get fatigued from the constant alarms going off, but research suggests long-term stress impacts your brain’s ability to communicate effectively in areas associated with learning and memory.
This can look like forgetting things you have ample training on. Ones mind can go completely blank.
8. Inability to Speak
Your fight-flight-freeze-fawn response is a reaction to an event your brain automatically perceives as life-threatening. To respond swiftly, the part of your brain that initiates your threat response knocks the thinking part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) offline. This makes it difficult to think clearly, and for some people, speak or communicate effectively.
“This can feel like you are trapped in your own body and not able to communicate or I feel like screaming inside but show no response to simple questions, then the tears can start falling.
It can also be a situation where someone goes mute; as if they forgot how to talk and just end up not reacting to a lot.
9. Trouble Communicating With a Partner
There are other ways the fight-flight response can impact your communication, including in relationships.
Your partner may inadvertently trigger your fight or flight response due to past trauma. This can lead to increased escalation of a disagreement or cause you to shut down.
Often, the reasons for over reactive behaviors are misunderstood.
One partner becomes overwhelmed with the other’s reaction. The intensity of their reaction escalates. The emotions, trauma and story behind the person’s behavior gets missed. … The other partner may not even know their partner is overwhelmed by stress and trauma let alone what is causing the reaction.
10. Proving You’re Right
Trauma can be incredibly invalidating, and when you’re questioned for anything later in life, it may feel downright threatening based on your past experience. This can trigger your flight response in ways others may not understand.
When someone doubts what someone says, it can send someone into a fight response. It stems from never being believed and always having to prove what I was saying.
What to Do If You’re Stuck in the Stress Response
If you see yourself in any of these unexpected ways the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response can show up, you’re not alone. It can take time to recognize how your past trauma impacts your life now, and it takes time to heal.
In the moment, focus on activities that ground you in the moment — like feeling your feet on the floor or reminding yourself of the current year. Talk to those you trust and consider getting professional support if you need it.
“If people are finding themselves having these responses that disrupt their lives, they can seek consultation from a counselor or psychotherapist trained in trauma. Meditation, yoga and psychological treatments such as Brainspotting, eye movement desensitization reprocessing [EMDR] and biofeedback can also help.”
No matter where you are in your healing journey, you don’t have to do it alone.