For a phrase that has only accelerated in popularity in recent years, you’d think that the definition of a “trauma response” would be a little more universal.
But with increasing popularity, the idea of what a trauma response is has become a bit more muddled, revealing some interesting nuances in how we collectively define and understand trauma.
At its most basic level, a trauma response is an automatic, self-protective, and unconscious reaction that survivors experience in situations that are reminiscent of their past trauma.
But while some argue that a trauma response is purely a physiological, stress-based response — and therefore involves very specific parts of the brain and body, particularly the nervous system — others suggest that trauma responses can also include more “sophisticated” social responses, like people-pleasing or lying, because human beings (and their traumas) have become more complex as we’ve evolved.
For example, while we might think of running from a bear (flight) to be a pretty clear and automatic trauma response, human beings now face threats that are far more complicated than simply encountering a bear in the woods.
When a survivor of domestic violence is driven to perfectly comply with an abuser’s demands, trying desperately to appease them for their own safety, we may see an emergent pattern of “people-pleasing” behavior in which the survivor is unconsciously driven to deescalate others whenever they feel threatened (fawn).
The trauma may not be an acute, singular event (like a bear encounter), and thus the survival strategies we develop may become more socially complex (particularly when the trauma is relational and ongoing, like in cases of abuse or neglect).
In that sense, we often see “trauma response” more broadly defined today as a reflexive coping mechanism that emerges when we’re triggered (whether that’s in response to an actual threat or imagined), with the intention of keeping us safe.
Trauma and the Body
For some experts, trauma responses refer strictly to the stress reactions driven by changes in the brain and its neurochemical systems, as well as our nervous systems, when we encounter trauma.
When we experience a traumatic event, or something reminiscent of a past trauma, three parts of the brain are implicated:
- The amygdala (often referred to as the emotional center of the brain)
- The hippocampus (responsible for memory)
- The prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotions and impulses)
When we’re triggered, the amygdala ramps up, making us more emotionally reactive, while the prefrontal cortex becomes suppressed, resulting in less emotional and impulse control.
In the hippocampus, trauma results in less activity, which makes the brain less able to discern between an active threat and the past memory of a trauma. That means we’re likely to react to our triggers instinctively and reflexively, as though they are a threat to our survival.
The amygdala also sends signals to our hypothalamus, which is responsible for the activation of our nervous system. This prompts the release of stress hormones throughout our bodies. This can increase our heart rate and blood flow, speed up our breathing, heighten our senses, and more, all to prepare us to respond to the immediate threat.
From a neurobiological point of view, a trauma response, then, is understood to be the specific reaction driven by this physiological process.
Some researchers describe this reaction as the “fight or flight” response, which is observable not only in human beings, but other animals as well.
When faced with a threat, our survival instincts kick in, and we’re prompted to either fight the threat (by reacting aggressively and approaching) or flee (by running away or retreating). Some experts also include “freeze” among these trauma responses, too, which is when we become completely immobile (many compare this to the shocked reaction of a “deer in headlights”).
The key feature is that these are all automatic responses, and are not considered to be in our conscious control.
The Stress Responses: Fight, Flight, and Freeze
These are the body-based, automatic trauma responses that are most commonly understood in the context of acute stress:
While the name seems to imply aggression or even violence, the fight response isn’t always driven by rage — in fact, most (if not all) trauma responses are driven by fear. Fight is best understood as a surge of energy that prompts action, and encourages us to confront the threat rather than avoiding or disengaging.
How to recognize it: Fight can look like being argumentative or physically intimidating, but it can also be more internalized if we aren’t sure how to channel that energy appropriately. This can also look like self-harm, screaming, crying, muscle tension, or redirected behaviors like property destruction. In children, this might even look quite similar to a “tantrum.”
The flight response evokes imagery of fleeing, which is often how this response shows up. Flight is most accurately described as the avoidance response, and rather than approaching the threat, we try to avoid or bypass it, whether that’s physically removing ourselves from the situation, or simply distracting ourselves to avoid the discomfort.
How to recognize it: Flight is the self-isolation response, and in most situations, someone engaging in this response will literally leave or flee. However, flight can also look like avoidance, whether that’s keeping ourselves busy to avoid uncomfortable feelings, or redirecting the conversation to avoid confrontation.
While flight implies movement, freeze implies total immobilization. Fight and flight often involve a surge of energy — and hyperarousal in the nervous system — whereas freeze is almost like buffering, and can involve hypoarousal at the same time. Some people describe freeze as stepping on the gas and the brake at the same time, or as being a combination of fight and flight.
While our body’s instinct to slow down is a smart one, giving us more time to react appropriately to a threat, the problem with freeze (like any trauma response) is that it’s an overcorrection, and usually results in total paralysis instead.
How to recognize it: Freeze typically involves a disconnect from the body and self. This can be quite literal, like being unable to move, speak, or even think. But it can also look like dissociation, in which we “check out” mentally and emotionally, and become numb and even detached from reality. While flight involves avoiding the threat through some kind of action, freeze involves becoming unresponsive to the threat through dissociation and inaction.
💡 It’s important to remember that there are no “good” or “bad” trauma responses. All trauma responses are fear-based and are intended to protect us.
So Which Is It Really: Just a Biological Response — Or Also Social?
Is a trauma response really just physiological, or is there room to expand its definition to include more complex social behaviors?
While all trauma responses are arguably triggered by a lack of safety felt in the body, what counts as a “real” trauma response is still considered somewhat subjective.
To this day, some argue that the only legitimate trauma responses are fight, flight, and freeze — driven by the more “primitive” parts of the brain and nervous system — while others have added additional responses (like fawn, fib, flop, funster, and fine) which reflect the increasingly complex nature of trauma.
So where, exactly, did these newer trauma responses come from, and which ones — if any — are “legitimate”? To better understand, it helps to put the concept of trauma in historical context.
While historic definitions of trauma and PTSD were largely informed by survivors of war, and thus understood through the lens of acute events, our understanding of trauma has since evolved, too.
Complex trauma and C-PTSD as concepts weren’t formally introduced until 1992, despite acute PTSD being described by clinicians many decades earlier. The introduction of complex trauma as a clinical construct defined a clear shift in thinking around what trauma looks like, and its impact on human beings specifically.
In short: Some trauma is acute, meaning it is a single event like an assault or car accident, while other traumas are labeled complex, meaning they are chronic and happen repeatedly over time, like an abusive relationship.
While in recent decades, some researchers honed in on and closely studied the physiological impact of (mostly) acute trauma, some experts diverged, and looked to explain the ways in which prolonged and inescapable trauma, like child abuse, impacted survivors in a more intangible way. This includes not just the body, but also things like consciousness, attachment, self-perception, and relationships.
This history becomes important to our understanding of what a trauma response actually is. If you are looking through the lens of neurobiology, we would be talking about the stress response that occurs in more acute, threatening situations, and is limited to our physiology.
But does that fully capture how human beings — as social creatures, and not just reflexive animals — experience trauma?
Complex trauma, as a clinical concept, implies that our sense of safety and our very survival is not just defined by singular events, and its impacts aren’t easily understood strictly through the lens of neurobiology.
If we expand our thinking to include complex trauma, which is chronic and ongoing, you might argue that the patterns of behavior that emerge in response to trauma are better understood through a more inclusive lens, including trauma’s impacts not just on the brain and nervous system, but on those more “intangible” things like attachment, self-perception, and relationships.
In fact, the ways in which we respond to relational threats like abuse and abandonment could introduce entirely new (and inherently more sophisticated) survival strategies, which are more social in nature, while still being largely involuntary and unconscious (as is a defining quality of trauma responses generally).
In other words? Trauma, at least for human beings, is more complicated than encountering the bear in the woods.
To better understand the patterned responses we develop in response to traumatic events, it is important to expand not just our understanding of what constitutes trauma, but what also qualifies as a trauma response.
The Social Responses: Fawn, Fib, Funster, Flop, and Fine
These are the more socially-driven responses (with flop being a possible outlier), which continue to evolve and expand as we better understand how human beings specifically react to trauma.
Fawning is most commonly described as “people-pleasing,” but many who experience fawning describe it as being so automatic and unthinking, they often don’t realize it’s happening at first.
It’s probably better understood as self-abandonment, in which the person who is triggered becomes singularly focused on meeting the needs and expectations of others in order to diffuse the threat and reestablish the illusion of safety, often to their own detriment.
How to recognize it: Fawning is more likely to look like being overly-apologetic or self-blaming, excessively complimentary (usually combined with some form of self-deprecation), attempting to make oneself seem smaller or less intimidating, “playing into” or reinforcing an existing power dynamic by dissolving any and all boundaries, or an extreme willingness to comply with someone else’s demands, even if those demands are harmful or destructive to the survivor.
An oversimplified way of describing the fib response is to call it lying. While the fib response does involve lying to some extent, not all lying is, by default, the fib response.
Like other trauma responses, this is a more automatic response, and it’s an attempt to deflect or redirect when feeling threatened, rather than a deliberate attempt to harm the other person.
How to recognize it: The fib response happens more often in the context of a power imbalance (like parent/child, student/teacher, employee/boss, etc), and is an attempt to deflect responsibility in situations where taking ownership could result in punishment or harm. Like all other trauma responses, it is fear-driven, and it is an attempt to reestablish safety.
Lying that is motivated by the fib response is about one’s safety and self-protection, especially in the face of potential harm, which is very different from a lie that is motivated exclusively by self-interest.
Many who have talked about the fib response have also noted that it appears to be more common in children and adolescents, in part because of the huge power imbalance between parent and child.
In an attempt to appear non-threatening, the funster response involves assuming the role of clown with the hopes of pacifying the threat — this could be cracking jokes, engaging in self-deprecation, or even performing in some way. The idea is to shift from being seen as a target to instead being viewed as an amusement, almost as a form of self-objectification.
There is a lot of disagreement around this particular response, with some arguing that this is an extension of social anxiety and not necessarily a trauma response. However, it’s also true that some social contexts can be deeply triggering for survivors, and framing this behavioral pattern as a trauma response might provide more meaningful context.
There is some disagreement around how to define flop, as the term itself is relatively new to the conversation. The disagreement is largely about whether it is a “pure” stress reaction or a social response.
Some argue that flop is actually fainting or completely shutting down, and therefore it is a stress event, more like fight, flight, or freeze. This is also sometimes referred to as “collapse.” Others suggest that flop is more like playing dead — feigning helplessness, illness, incapacity, or injury — in an attempt to redirect or even deceive a threat.
A relatively new category as well, “fine” is characterized by outright denial of the threat and a total disconnect from the triggered state. This can look like a lack of reaction to danger, a refusal to seek out help, downplaying the severity of the abuse or threat, or a complete disconnect from reality.
This can be more body-based, like a reduced sensitivity (or even being outright numb) to injury and pain, or more social-based, like adamantly denying that abuse or harm has happened, even when confronted by clear evidence.
💡 Some argue that responses like “fib” and “funster” are actually a form of fawning, as they both involve appeasing the threat through social behavior, whereas “flop” is a body-based response better known as “collapse.” As it turns out, it isn’t all that easy to define a trauma response.
So How Many Trauma Responses Are There, Really?
When the idea of “fawning” was first introduced as a fourth trauma response, it was met with mixed reactions. Some who were operating from a more neurobiological understanding of trauma argued that fawning was just too complex to be considered a “real” trauma response.
When someone is triggered, they argued, something like future-planning becomes impossible because the parts of the brain implicated in longer-term thinking more or less shut down, as they are considered non-essential in a life or death situation.
How can someone engage in something as complex as fawning, then, which requires some amount of higher-level thinking? Similar critiques have since been made of social responses like fib and funster as well.
But I would argue that, if we subscribe to a view which suggests that trauma responses are only driven by these more immediate neurobiological and physiological processes, we’re leaving out what we’ve since learned about how complex trauma impacts survivors, and how aspects of our bodies (like the nervous system and the brain) can be altered over the long-term.
While complex trauma can (and does) trigger these more automatic, in-the-moment responses, part of what makes C-PTSD so impactful for survivors is that it often also results in the development of other more “complicated” coping mechanisms because of its relational and ongoing nature.
How we might survive a bear attack is going to be a bit different when the “bear” in this scenario is someone’s caregiver, and when there is no route to safety (or even an escape) for a prolonged period of time.
Humans have evolved to be complex beings, which means how we respond to trauma will not only show up in how it conditions our bodies, but it will also impact our self-image, our attachment, our relationships, and even our experience of consciousness itself.
By expanding our understanding of a “trauma response” to include the more “complicated” social coping mechanisms we develop — instead of limiting it to the more immediate and physical reactions that so often define acute events — we are ensuring that our definition of what constitutes a “valid” trauma response is inclusive of the patterns that we see emerging from complex and chronic trauma as well.
💡 Many trauma survivors have noted that it’s helpful to make the distinction that trauma responses are conditioned and not chosen. So while some trauma responses are more “social” in nature, that doesn’t make them planned or chosen.
Wait — Doesn’t That Mean There Could Be Even More Trauma Responses, Then?
Technically, sure! This question often stems from the emerging pushback we’ve seen towards how the definition of “trauma response” has expanded, especially as its usage becomes more frequent outside of clinical spaces.
There are a lot of behavior patterns (unconscious and automatic) which can emerge as a response to trauma, and how granular we should get in categorizing them is, at the end of the day, still pretty subjective.
This is why we’ve seen an uptick in media highlighting different “trauma responses” that focus more broadly on coping mechanisms — like hyper-independence, affective empathy, and even disordered eating — rather than attempting to keep trauma responses limited to the “fight or flight” framework.
And as we come to better and more broadly understand systemic oppression — like racism, misogyny, or transphobia — as a real and persistent trauma, we are still uncovering new frameworks to capture the lasting impacts of these (and many other) types of trauma.
It can be uncomfortable to wrestle with this kind of ambiguity, though, because when we create language around mental health — particularly when it relates to specific conditions, like PTSD — the hope is that it’s at least specific and well-defined enough to not be misused or misappropriated, especially when that language becomes popularized.
Pathologizing our behaviors unnecessarily can be harmful to ourselves, and quite invalidating to others who are struggling. So some amount of caution is warranted, of course, when we use this type of language.
(For example, this is why there is pushback on how we define “intrusive thoughts” and how we distinguish them from impulsive thoughts. There is a world of difference between the distressing and repetitive thoughts experienced by people with OCD, versus the whims of someone who feels the urge to dye their hair. Clarity is important here.)
But rather than worrying that the definition of a “trauma response” is somehow becoming too permissive, we might be exploring the wrong question altogether.
A better question to start with might be: Who is this language and framework serving — who is it actually intended for?
Because if we know why we’ve created this language in the first place, we can determine whether or not it’s fulfilling its intended purpose.
In my opinion — as both a journalist and as a survivor of complex trauma — whatever language we create to define a trauma response should aim to (1) support and empower survivors, and (2) give clinicians a coherent starting point for exploring these patterns meaningfully alongside us.
There is a very real (and understandable) urge to more strictly define what is and isn’t a valid trauma response, especially in light of how platforms like TikTok have taken the phrase and ran with it — and, in the process, have started pathologizing behaviors that are relatively benign and some which aren’t necessarily indicative of a trauma history at all.
I am certainly not the arbiter of what is and is not “valid” when it comes to describing trauma. But what I will offer is that as we continue to expand our understanding of what constitutes trauma, we must also be willing to explore the possibility that the coping mechanisms we develop as a result may be more complex than we initially thought.
This language will likely continue to evolve to better encompass the diverse experiences of survivors, and it absolutely should, because that is a large part of its purpose.
Considering that how we have defined trauma itself is a product of history, and not a totally objective and unchanging reality, I think it’s important that we remain open to how this language may change. This article, then, is simply capturing this moment in time.