The 5 F’s of Emotional Trauma Response Behaviors
Recognizing and Healing Freeze, Fight, Flight, Faint, and Fawn Emotional Trauma Response behaviors.
This is Lesson #4 in the Courage to Change Series. These lessons invite you to explore when and where it’s time for growth in your life and give you the courage to take action! The series offers lessons on the most common topics people ask me about in my work as a coach and provides insight and actions to implement with each lesson.
For additional reference on the 5 F’s of Emotional Trauma Response please listen to the Becoming Unsilenced Podcast Episode 3.
The 5 F’s of Emotional Trauma Response
In the last Courage to Change Series article, The 7 Stages of Personal Development , we explored the various stages of growth that reflect conscious living. The first three phases of development emphasize healing and making peace with the past. In this lesson, we explore the emotional trauma responses that our body naturally employs to keep us safe. We examine why these develop, what they are, and how to get off auto-pilot and instead live each moment as your brilliant, capable, self.
The 5 F’s are natural ways that our body is automatically programmed to keep us safe. Things go wrong when these responses become automatic in situations that aren’t a threat. They work great if you step off the curb to cross the street and suddenly see a bus barreling around the corner at you. However, they don’t work so great when they kick in during a conversation with your partner and you can’t confidently express what you are thinking or feeling.
In the next section, we look at what these responses are and how they get off track.
Why the 5F’s Develop
Emotional wellness experts have described the 5 F’s — Freeze, Fight, Flight, Faint and Fawn — as emotional trauma responses. These 5 F’s protect you from experiencing pain by hardwiring automatic behavioral responses. A fainting goat will faint in the presence of a threat or surprise. Its muscles temporarily lock up. Evolution likely developed this response to keep the animal safe from predators. Although these responses seem automatic, awareness allows one to choose a more helpful response when danger isn’t present.
Under normal circumstances, the body responds to protect us. But how does the body decide what to protect us from? In our formative years, real or perceived threats that cause deep emotions contribute to developing trauma responses. Trauma can range from simple to complex events for example: being made fun of at school, your parent arriving one hour late to pick you up, or more extreme events such as a parent abandoning a child, watching a parent struggle with an addiction, or experiencing a severe car accident.
Anytime the brain perceives a threat it responds with a safety coping mechanism. With each repeated incident the strength of the emotional trauma response becomes deeper and increasingly automatic. Let’s take a look at the life of Janey to see how this happens.
A Look through Janey’s Eyes
At birth, Janey’s family looked perfect from the outside. Behind closed doors at home things looked very different. Janey’s dad had very strict rules and an explosive temper, especially when the rules were violated. If Janey or her siblings stepped outside those rules Dad delivered harsh punishment. In addition, Dad never allowed Janey to explain her actions or share how the harsh rules made her feel.
Janey’s mom tried to defend the kids but usually quickly acquiesced to peacekeeping instead of real change-making. Mom coped with her own emotions about the situation by emotionally disconnecting and cooking. So, whenever conflict emerged in the household — which was regular — mom disappeared to the kitchen to bake and cook and serve up food to help everyone “feel” better.
Let’s take a look now at how the 5 F’s of Freeze, Fight, Flight, Faint, and Fawn show in Janey’s adult life.
What are the 5 F’s of Emotional Trauma Response
This next section explores more fully the five emotional trauma responses and how they show up in adult life.
First, let’s take a look at the freeze emotional trauma response. Although it can mean physically “freezing,” it also applies to many other life situations. Janey, now an adult and married, experiences frustration. She wants to share her thoughts, emotions, and ideas with her partner, yet finds the words stick in her throat. At first, her partner demonstrated patience in trying to get her to talk. These days he responds angrily and impatiently telling her to “just spit it out.”
Janey’s inability to voice her thoughts demonstrates the freeze response. To someone who doesn’t understand this, she’s just being obstinate and unwilling to talk. Yet, Janey’s core challenge requires developing emotional safety. This will allow her to speak freely respecting her own perspective, thoughts, feelings. Instead, each time she desires to speak, the same automatic response that kept her safe as a kid kicks in.
If that emotional trauma response had words it would be saying. “Janey speaking up as a child was dangerous and caused severe punishment so now you need to stay quiet to be safe.” It doesn’t make “sense” as an adult with a patient partner, yet as long as she allows this unconscious response it will appear as if it’s true. The fact that her partner expresses anger and impatience with her seems like “proof” that she isn’t safe to speak.
Consequently, until Janey becomes consciously aware of this unhealthy freeze response and takes action to heal it, she will experience difficulty in close relationships. This vocal freeze response will impact her interaction any time she needs to communicate with an authority figure.
While the freeze response keeps a person rooted in one spot unsure what to do next, the flight response keeps one on the run. Let’s take a look next at the “Flight” Response.
Run. Move. Avoid. Leave. Stop. These are all actions associated with the flight response. It’s one we understand a bit more. Common sense and instinct guide us when threatened. But what if the mind has turned parts of everyday life into threats? Janey often senses a restlessness that keeps her on the move.
Throughout her 15-year marriage to Jerry, Janey instigated frequent moves and held many unfulfilling jobs. Janey continually pushed to move each time because “something was not right” about the environment. She imagined the next location would yield the “perfect” job and the “ideal” place to live.
Frequent change distracts Janey from what is really happing inside of her. The dissatisfaction she feels results from the automatic desire to run to avoid confrontation. The intimidating boss and outspoken co-worker cause her to shrink instead of speaking up. She fears negative repercussions for voicing her opinions and ideas and instead keeps silent. Sadly, this attitude keeps Janie from contributing her brilliant ideas and feedback. She lost a job recently because of her “lack of team contribution.”
So, Janey hunts again — telling herself that the next job, the next house, the next community will be the one that gives her a chance. The truth is Janey will keep running until she stops to look deep enough inside herself.
It’s easy to spot in Janey’s story, maybe not so much in your life! Maybe flight isn’t your “go-to” emotional trauma response. Instead, you may dig in for the fight! Let’s look at that next.
Flee or fight. It’s the age-old dilemma. Should I stay or should I go? Fighting simply means defending. Nations go to war to defend against invaders. We go to war with friends, co-workers, partners, and neighbors defending our values, beliefs, and opinions. We tend to fight when we feel threatened whether the threat is real or perceived. We fight to keep ourselves emotionally, physically, financially, and mentally safe. But fighting means the other person automatically becomes an adversary.
The emotional trauma fight response causes Janey to see situations in extremes. Right or Wrong. Perfection or not at all. Conflict and criticism activate the flight response in Janeys’ brain causing her to feel attacked and threatened. The instinct it to attack back.
Janey goes into fight mode after Jerry tells her to “just spit out what she wants to say.” Now she spits out statements such as you never listen to me or quit bullying me. Meanwhile, the true authentic feelings remain frozen in her throat.
Our culture tells us to “stand up for ourselves” and “don’t let your rights be violated.” While all of these statements are true at one level, doing them from a fight response will never get the results hoped for. In the lessons ahead, we will learn the skill of holding difficult conversations in a conflict-free manner. We can learn to say everything that needs to be said with complete respect to everyone involved.
Previously, we examined the flight response. Here we will examine the often-overlooked faint response. It took me a while to understand how this response was impacting my own life! Yet it’s one of the most effective safety strategies that the body employs!
Let’s go back to Janey and observe two ways the faint response showed up in her life. Often, her father’s harsh rules and guidelines revolved around money. The imprint of growing up in scarcity during the depression still ruled his choices even though money was plentiful now.
New was frivolous, second-hand, a virtue. Young Janey even felt guilty asking for new shoes when needed.
She was excited to move out of the house and make her own financial decisions as an adult. However, she often felt sick when she shopped. The bright lights in one store bothered her. Another one was too crowded. Janey often felt dizzy and fuzzy-headed when she spent more than 30 minutes in a store.
As Janey learned about mindfulness on her healing journey, she found that difficult as well. The moment she sat down to read a book on personal growth or do a short meditation she almost immediately fell asleep.
Both situations — the sick feeling while shopping and the urge to fall asleep — were faint trauma responses at work. Her body learned it could protect her by making her sick or fall asleep. Either option was easier than facing the old stories, wounds, and messages from her youth.
As we see with the faint response, our bodies have an amazing capacity to protect us. These responses may have genuinely kept Janey safe as a child. However, as an adult, they hinder her ability to develop and maintain connections at home and at work. Next let’s explore the least known trauma response: Fawning.
The faint emotional trauma response is lesser known than the freeze, fight, and flight responses. Even lesser known is the Fawn trauma response. You may identify betters with these symptoms: people-pleasing, overhelping, and inability to say no. Especially women in western culture feel a heavy pressure to put others’ needs ahead of their own. The fear of rejection, the desire for approval, and peacekeeping are commonly at the core of this behavior.
For Janey, the fawn response developed in childhood because of her father’s abusive, overly harsh, and critical behavior. She learned to please and appease him to avoid further conflict. As a child, she kept the peace by saying what her father, the authority figure wanted to hear. She kept her unique feelings hidden at all costs to avoid additional abuse and criticism.
This became a pattern that repeats itself into adulthood and is often mistaken for a personality trait instead of trauma. It impacts romantic relationships as well as professional ones. Because people-pleasing, overhelping, and peace at one’s own expense can be misperceived as a personality flaw, even trained professionals sometimes miss it.
Janey often unknowingly responds to her husband in a fawning way. She defers to what restaurant he wants to eat at, the color he wants to paint the house, and how the yard is landscaped. Fawning keeps her safe, but really it leaves her feeling like a victim. It robs her of her own feelings, preferences, and individuality. This is so deeply ingrained in her personality that she feels guilty when she chooses according to her own desire.
For additional learning and to see if you have characteristics of the fawn trauma response check out Psychology today’s blog post on this topic.
Awareness Is the First Step to Healing
Which one of the 5 trauma responses do you identify with most? It’s not uncommon to have one or more as dominant response patterns. Did you spot any of your own behavior in the examples? Don’t feel overwhelmed if you did! Awareness is the first key to change!
In the lessons ahead, I’ll be giving new tools and techniques to help you release the grip of the 5 F’s on your life. Depending on how deep the trauma is you may need professional help to heal the wounds.
For now, the most powerful tool that you can begin using is this. Notice when a response kicks in. Be curious about what was happening when it kicked in. All healing begins with self-awareness. One of the most powerful practices that dissolve old trauma is mindfulness. Watch for that lesson ahead.
If you have read this and feel overwhelmed at what you recognize don’t waste another minute feeling alone in this! You can connect with me for a consultation through my website ( Transcending Limits ) or seek out a professional near you with one of these backgrounds: EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), RTT (Rapid Transformational Therapy), EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), or NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming).
In conclusion, understanding what the 5 F’s are, what causes them, and how they can powerfully run your life, is key to transformation. It takes courage to look them in the eye, own their grip on you, and then take the needed action to heal. Having the Courage to Change brings new freedom and joy to life that can never be experienced while the 5 F’s are in charge. It is not easy but it is worth it.
Originally published at https://tslimits.com on June 21, 2021.