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Fight, Flight, Flee, Flop: Understanding Trauma Responses

Fight, Flight, Flee, Flop: Understanding Trauma Responses

Our bodies' natural emergency response to acute stress or danger, the fight-or-flight mechanism, prepares us to either defend ourselves or escape harm. This primal reflex, crucial for our ancestors' survival, is triggered by the nervous system releasing stress hormones, accelerating the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, and sharpening our senses. However, while fight-or-flight serves as a critical defense against immediate threats, its frequent activation in response to modern-day stresses—such as job pressures, financial worries, or the long-term effects of trauma—can lead to significant health and emotional issues.

The chronic engagement of this emergency mode can cause exhaustion, burnout, cognitive difficulties, and mood disorders, as our systems are not designed to handle persistent stress. This breakdown reflects the inadequacy of our fight-or-flight response to address the ongoing challenges posed by trauma.

Beyond the Basics: Understanding Trauma Responses

Recent research has shed light on a broader spectrum of innate, adaptive responses to trauma that extend beyond the well-known fight-or-flight reaction. Recognizing these additional response patterns is crucial for offering compassionate support to those experiencing trauma, helping us understand and empathize with their reactions, which may initially appear confusing or counterproductive.

Freeze Response The freeze response occurs when neither fighting nor fleeing resolves the danger. In such cases, individuals may instinctively "play dead," becoming physically immobilized or psychologically dissociated from the traumatic event. This response serves as a survival strategy by making the person appear less threatening or even unnoticed by predators (Hagenaars et al., 2014).

Flop Response

The flop response, observed in young mammals and humans alike, involves a physical collapse that signals surrender. This involuntary defense mechanism aims to end conflict by eliciting caretaking behaviors from the aggressor, thus avoiding further harm (Porges, 2011). It's often seen in situations where resistance or escape is impossible, such as during episodes of abuse.

Fawn Response

The fawn response involves attempting to appease or placate a threat through submissive behavior, including people-pleasing and suppressing one's own needs. This strategy seeks to avoid conflict and ensure safety by gaining the favor or temporary leniency of the aggressor, although it can lead to long-term emotional and relational difficulties (Kozlowska et al., 2015).

Embracing Compassion and Understanding

Understanding the complexity of trauma responses beyond the fight-or-flight paradigm allows us to approach those who have experienced trauma with greater empathy and compassion. By recognizing the varied and intelligent biological reactions to traumatic situations, we can support individuals in navigating their healing journey without judgment.

This expanded perspective encourages a more inclusive and supportive approach to dealing with trauma, emphasizing the need for a safe space where survivors can process their experiences and find pathways to recovery. Acknowledging the wide range of human responses to trauma invites a deeper connection and aids in the collective healing process, offering hope and empowerment to those on the path to overcoming their traumatic past.

For professionals working with trauma survivors, integrating this nuanced understanding of trauma responses is essential. The NeuroNarrative Approach™ offers a comprehensive framework for applying these insights in clinical practice, education, and coaching. To learn more about how you can deepen your trauma-informed skill set and support your clients' healing journeys, visit Explore classes, coaching, retreats, and intensives designed to expand your knowledge and nurture your resilience in this vital work.

In Peace,



Hagenaars, M. A., Oitzl, M., & Roelofs, K. (2014). Updating freeze: Aligning animal and human research. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 165-176.

Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: Clinical implications and management. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23(4), 263-287.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.

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