Is it a personality quirk, or is it trauma? Trauma response is how your body reflexively responds to a perceived threat. That “threat” doesn’t have to be anything physical, like a mountain lion attack. It can also be a prolonged source of stress, like growing up in a dangerous neighborhood or dealing with the death of a loved one.
The human mind and body are remarkably resilient because we evolved with a pre-programmed desire to protect ourselves from danger. You might have heard of this as the fight-or-flight response: the natural system your body uses to defend itself from mental or physical threats.
Once the threat has passed, your system is supposed to calm down. After all, it’s stressful to remain in that heightened state for too long. But sometimes, the body can’t return to baseline, leading to a trauma response: a reaction to stress that manifests in your behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and body, even long after the event.
Are you a homebody? A yeller? A workaholic? A people-pleaser? Those might be trauma responses.
What is trauma?
In a state of danger, your body learns to cope with stressful events. According to the American Psychiatric Association, trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” 1 Therefore, a traumatic experience can be any event in your life that causes a threat to your safety, whether real or perceived.
Sources of trauma can include:
- Child trauma, such as abandonment or bullying
- Domestic, physical, and sexual violence
- Natural disasters
- Life-threatening accidents
Basically, anything that feels so threatening that your ability to function normally in your daily life is temporarily disrupted.
Fight-or-flight instincts can be life-saving. But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), they can also leave people with ongoing symptoms: “Because the body is busy increasing its heart rate, pumping blood to muscles, preparing the body to fight or flee, all our physical resources and energy are focused on getting out of harm’s way.” 2
Your body responds to a threat by activating your sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Your heart rate increases, palms get sweaty, and pupils dilate. Once the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) has an important role: It’s responsible for bringing you back to baseline. 3
However, the nervous system can get overloaded and dysregulate when your stress response triggers regularly and consistently. In that case, what goes up cannot come down. And when that happens, it can change the way the brain functions:
- Studies of combat veterans with PTSD suggest dysregulation in the HPA axis. This system regulates the body’s stress response, leading to abnormal changes in hormone levels, neurotransmitter signaling, and brain structure and function, including the hippocampus and amygdala. 4
- PTSD is linked to greater activity in the brain areas that process fear and less activation in parts of the prefrontal cortex. 5 The prefrontal region area of the brain controls executive function, or one’s ability to plan, problem-solve, and act with long-term goals in mind. 6
- According to a resource guide from the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, trauma can affect the parts of the brain that regulate danger response, emotions, sleep patterns, and hormone levels in children and teens. 7
Some people have no problem coming back to baseline after a traumatic event. Other people have a more challenging time regulating due to the severity of the trauma, the frequency of exposure, and the age at which the trauma occurred, among other factors. In those situations, the mind and body learn to cope in a heightened state of stress.
There’s even something called complex trauma, which the National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines as a person’s exposure to multiple traumatic events at developmentally vulnerable times in a person’s life, like early childhood or adolescence. 8 Adverse childhood experiences, like coping with an angry parent, can function as traumatic events that play a long-term role in a person’s mental and behavioral health.
Notably, complex trauma can occur anytime during a person’s life. Complex traumatic events can include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, exposure to community violence, and medical trauma. 9
All this to say, trauma isn’t just in your head. It can have effects that echo throughout your entire body. Sometimes, the coping mechanisms we develop in response to stressful events, perceived threats, and actual danger can alter how we perceive the world.
What is emotional and psychological trauma?
Emotional and psychological trauma can result from witnessing an event perceived as life-threatening or potentially harmful to oneself or others. A traumatic event or situation creates psychological trauma when it overwhelms your ability to cope and leaves you fearing things like death and mutilation. 10
Said another way, physical trauma is something you can see, like a cut or a bruise. But you can’t see emotional and psychological trauma. It’s internal, literally changing the way your nervous system functions, and it can impact everything from the way you think to how you unwind.
In an interview with 1440 Multiversity, Dr. Gabor Maté (an expert on addiction, trauma, and childhood development) said, “Wherever we’re wounded, there’s scar tissue that forms, and scar tissue is always harder, less resilient, and less flexible than the tissue that it replaces. When psychological trauma happens, our psyches become more rigid and harder and less flexible.” 11
Examples of potential causes of emotional and psychological trauma include:
- Single events, such as natural disasters, auto and plane accidents, or violent attacks
- Prolonged stressors, such as domestic violence, childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and living in a dangerous neighborhood
- Unexpected events, like serious illness, death of a loved one, or an emotionally significant breakup
It’s important to note that trauma comes in many forms, and two people can have vastly different reactions to the same experience. Instead of pinning trauma on a single event, the survivor’s experience defines the trauma. 10
Common problems that can occur after a trauma
Just as there isn’t a single type of trauma, there isn’t a single problem that can occur after the danger has passed. Some people bounce back from a traumatic event. However, others have effects that linger for weeks, months, or even years after the event in ways they might not even realize.
Here are some common problems that can occur after a trauma: 12
- Anger: Some people have a hard time controlling their emotions, culminating in aggressive behavior and violence.
- Guilt, self-blame, and shame: Survivor guilt happens when someone feels emotionally distressed and self-critical for surviving when others have not. Guilt, self-blame, and shame can all be lumped together into a series of emotions that someone feels long after the traumatic event has passed. 13
- Depression: Feelings of despair, hopelessness, and fatigue are classic depressive symptoms. Depression can lead to loss of interest in activities that used to bring a person joy and suicidal thoughts.
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): If a person is reliving their traumatic event, dealing with symptoms like agitation and insomnia, and feeling reactions like avoidance and confusion beyond one month after the initial trauma, they might be dealing with PTSD. 4
- Substance abuse: Alcohol and drugs can numb difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories related to trauma, but substance abuse isn’t a coping mechanism. Self-medicating with alcohol and drugs can interfere with the healing process and interfere with a person’s ability to confront and move past their trauma.
- Suicidal ideation: Trauma and loss can lead to self-harm and thoughts of ending one’s own life. If you have suicidal thoughts and need immediate support, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Common responses and symptoms of trauma
There isn’t one right or wrong way to react to a traumatic event. When you’re dealing with something that disrupts your ability to live normally, your mind and body will do whatever they can to survive. That means that people will have different reactions to traumatic events.
- Increased heart rate
- Stress-related skin disorders, like psoriasis and hives
- Difficulty sleeping
- Digestive issues, such as stomach upset
- Chronic pain
- Rapid breathing
- Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- Experiencing triggers and flashbacks
- Hallucinations or delusions
- Idealization of the perpetrator’s behavior, especially if they were a caregiver
- Intrusive thoughts and memories
- Misinterpreting a situation as dangerous because it resembles a previous trauma
- Disordered eating
- Not wanting intimacy
- Self-harm and self-destructive behaviors
- Substance abuse
- Withdrawing from normal activities
- Feeling “on edge”
The 6 trauma responses
What’s a trauma response? First, remember that when you deal with traumatic stress, your nervous system triggers a cascade of reactions that enter your mind and body into survival mode. In that state, the brain’s higher reasoning and language structures are down-regulated because you’re focused on survival, not rational thinking.
The result of that shutdown is a profound imprinted stress response. 18 Sometimes, that response lingers, causing physiological, mental, and emotional changes in how you interact with the world (and yourself).
There are different types of trauma responses. You might have heard of fight-or-flight, but as trauma research has expanded, more “F”s have been added to reflect other physiological responses. 19 For example, Dr. Schauer and Dr. Thomas Elbert propose the freeze-flight-fight-fright-flag-faint model, representing the cascading sequence of fear responses during threatening situations. 20
By understanding trauma responses, we can better understand the coping mechanisms we use to deal with stressors. But it’s important to note that trauma responses have a healthy purpose: They’re designed to keep us alive. But when we can’t come back to a place of safety, it throws everything out of whack.
As psychotherapist Pete Walker notes in Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, traumatized children tend to over-gravitate to response patterns to survive. In particular, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn defenses help children survive horrific childhoods but “leave them very limited and narrow in how they respond to life. Even worse, they remain locked in these patterns in adulthood when they no longer need to rely so heavily on one primary response pattern.” 21
There are several ways humans might respond to stress or danger. We’ll look at six contemporary theories and how they might translate to a person’s behaviors.
- Camouflage response
- Hiding and feeling emotionally or physically numb
- Self-isolating activities
In nature, freezing is called an “orienting response.” In a 1998 article that compares animal trauma responses to humans and expands on its relation to PTSD, researchers note that freezing facilitates a “stop-look-listen” perception of the threat. 22 People with this trauma response might feel spaced out, have a hard time remaining present, and feel emotionally or physically numb.
According to Walker in Complex PTSD, the freeze response is like a camouflage response, triggering a survivor into hiding, isolation, and dissociation to prevent further stress. As adults, freeze types might avoid conflict with self-isolating activities, such as video games, sleeping, and watching TV.
- Symbolically or literally flees from danger
- Tendency to overwork and hide behind adrenaline-seeking behavior
- May express obsessive and compulsive behaviors
The flight response is an acute stress response that follows the “freeze” state. Walker describes the flight response as someone who symbolically flees from their trauma through adrenaline-seeking behaviors, overworking, and obsessive and compulsive behaviors. This person avoids potentially traumatic situations and interactions with others; when the going gets tough, they get going (or distract themselves in other ways).
- Seeks safety through control and power
- Aggressive and violent behaviors
- Reactive and argumentative
When fleeing isn’t available, fighting is the next option. The fight response is part of the alarm phase that the body initially experiences when that surge of adrenaline reaches its peak. As a trauma response, fight types are driven by the belief that power and control can create safety, and they might respond to stressors with unacceptable levels of anger and aggression.
- People-pleaser who pacifies others
- Avoids conflict by minimizing own needs
- May have been “parentified” as a child
In 2000, researchers proposed tend-and-befriend to describe a unique behavioral response to stress in females: the tendency to nurture activities and networks to protect the self and offspring. 23 This type is also called “fawn.” They’re characterized by prioritizing others above themselves. Fawning types are people-pleasers who fear expressing themselves. They’re codependent and aim to avoid conflict by merging with other people’s wishes, needs, and demands to create a pseudo sense of safety.
- Numb and highly disengaged
- Physical reactions like nausea and vomiting
According to Schauer and Elbert’s model, the next stage is “flag” if the threatening situation is not resolved. 20 Flag is a state of unresponsive immobility and nervous system shut-down. The heart rate and blood pressure drop, vision blurs, and a person feels numb, unresponsive, and disengaged. Schauer and Elbert suggest that horrific events can trigger dysregulation in the vagus nerve, regulating internal nervous function. This trigger leads to nausea, loss of bowel control, vomiting, and fainting.
- Physically and mentally unresponsive
- May be triggered by disgust
- Related to flag response
The final stage of Schauer and Elbert’s model is fainting. From an evolutionary perspective, this response has a practical purpose: the horizontal position of fainting secures blood supply to the brain. In addition, this response is connected to disgust and the rejection of potentially infectious or poisonous material, like blood or stool.
Some researchers combine flagging and fainting into one response called “flop,” which is generally characterized by becoming physically or mentally unresponsive.
Can you have more than one?
Trauma doesn’t fit into a neat category, nor do trauma responses. It’s possible for people to have more than one trauma response, depending on the situation, or to have responses that combine more than one type.
In Complex PTSD, Walker describes “trauma hybrids,” stating that most trauma survivors are also hybrids (like fight-fawn or flight-freeze) and have a backup response when our primary one is not effective enough. 21
Ideally, people who have healthy responses to stress can access their responses appropriately, self-regulate, and move on. After all, you occasionally need to fight to reinforce your boundaries; other times, you need to fawn to keep the peace.
But when a person’s trauma responses are not appropriately regulated, it can significantly affect their ability to unwind, react appropriately, and cope with daily stressors.
When to seek professional therapy for trauma
If you identify with any trauma responses, know that you’re not alone. More than half the people who seek psychiatric care have been assaulted, abandoned, or neglected as children or have witnessed violence in their families. 24
Professional therapy can be an invaluable resource for trauma recovery. You don’t have to be diagnosed with mental illness or have experienced a mental health crisis to visit a therapist.
It’s a good idea to seek professional help if you:
- Have a hard time handling intense feelings
- Experience symptoms of physical stress, like pain and headaches
- Feel numb and empty
- Don’t feel like yourself anymore
- Deal with sleep disturbances or nightmares
- Avoid anything that reminds you of your trauma
- Feel alone and like nobody understands you
- Are using drugs and alcohol more often
- Have trouble working or managing day-to-day responsibilities
- Have flashbacks to traumatic events
- Feel on-edge and easily startled
- Feel like you don’t have anybody to talk to
How do you get support?
There are many different ways to get professional help, just as there are many kinds of therapists. If you’re dealing with the lingering effects of trauma, it’s helpful to look for a therapist who has experience with PTSD symptoms, PTSD treatment, or trauma-informed care.
You’ll also want to ask about the type of therapy they use. For example, some trauma therapists might use cognitive behavioral therapy to help identify your thoughts and behaviors and develop healthy coping methods. Others might use Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment, which uses visual stimulation to help reduce the emotion and physiological reaction to trauma.
Therapists and counseling centers might even use a combination of methods. There isn’t a single right or wrong approach to therapy. What matters is what is most effective for you.
The independent nonprofit HelpGuide has compiled a list of resources to help find a therapist in the United States and other countries. In addition, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a dedicated section to help people find treatment options in the United States. GoodTherapy.org is another directory that aims to make it easier for people to access mental health services in the United States and abroad.
If you’re in a mental health crisis and require immediate assistance, use these resources:
- Crisis Text Line offers free, 24/7 support via text and WhatsApp.
- The NAMI HelpLine at 800-950-NAMI (6264) is available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET, or you can text 741-741 anytime to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
- The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 is available 24/7 in the United States. A chat option is also available on their website.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is trauma?
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible situation, like assault, death, or a natural disaster. A traumatic experience can be any event that threatens your safety, and it can change the way your mind and body react to stress and danger.
What are the trauma responses?
- Freeze: You feel isolated, numb, and spaced out.
- Flight: You avoid the situation to avoid conflict.
- Fight: You try to regain control with anger and aggression.
- Fawn: You please others and abandon your own needs to avoid confrontation.
- Flag: You become immobile and dissociate from the situation.
- Faint: You become mentally and physically unresponsive.
When should you seek professional help?
- You have a hard time managing your emotions
- You’re dealing with nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- You have traumatic flashbacks and avoid specific triggers
- You’re using drugs and alcohol to cope or numb your emotions
- You feel alone and isolated
- You’re considering self-harm or having suicidal thoughts
The bottom line
Trauma affects everyone differently. Suppose you tend to lose your temper, hide from conflict, or try to make everyone else happy. In that case, you might have a trauma response preventing you from processing your emotions and fully integrating the experience.
Just like changing your mind, it’s also possible to manage trauma responses and learn how to cope in healthier ways. It’s helpful to understand trauma and how it can manifest itself, but it’s more beneficial to talk with a professional. Therapy can help you work through your trauma, understand your thoughts and feelings, and find positive ways to cope with potential stressors and triggers.
5. Patel R, Spreng RN, Shin LM, Girard TA. Neurocircuitry models of posttraumatic stress disorder and beyond: a meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2012;36(9):2130-2142. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.06.003
8. Greeson JKP, Briggs EC, Kisiel CL, et al. Complex trauma and mental health in children and adolescents placed in foster care: findings from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Child Welfare. 2011;90(6):91-108.
10. Giller E. What Is Psychological Trauma? In: Passages to Prevention: Prevention across Life’s Spectrum. Sidran Institute; 1999.
11. Understanding Trauma, Addiction, and the Path to Healing: A Conversation with Gabor Maté – Be Here Now Network 2022. Accessed March 17, 2022. https://beherenownetwork.com/understanding-trauma-addiction-and-the-path-to-healing-a-conversation-with-gabor-mate/
14. Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Understanding the Impact of Trauma. In: Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Vol 57. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. Accessed March 16, 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207191/
17. Bradley CS, Nygaard IE, Mengeling MA, et al. Urinary incontinence, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder in women veterans. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012;206(6):502.e1-8. doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2012.04.016
19. Myrick AC, Brand BL. Dissociation, dissociative disorders, and PTSD. In: Martin CR, Preedy VR, Patel VB, eds. Comprehensive Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. Springer International Publishing; 2016:41-59. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-08359-9_39
21. Walker P. Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma. 1st ed. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 2013:374.
23. Taylor SE, Klein LC, Lewis BP, Gruenewald TL, Gurung RAR, Updegraff JA. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychol Rev. 2000;107(3):411-429. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.107.3.411
24. van der Kolk M.D. B. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Illustrated. Penguin Books; 2015:464.