There’s More Than Just Fight & Flight Survival Mode: What's Your Trauma Type?
Back during my high school days, my family used to tease me all of the time for being a “space cadet” or “blonde.” I can’t say I blame them--it was a real struggle for me to stay focused and present at nearly any time.
What they didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize either, was that my difficulty being present and focused had nothing to do with being “blonde”, but rather was my survival mode.
I went into freeze mode any time I felt stressed, overwhelmed, criticized, fearful, or experienced anything new.
That was pretty much all of the time.
I worked a couple of different jobs while in high school and constantly beat myself up about my inability to perform my work well. I struggled majorly to learn and apply the most basic instructions.
I didn’t understand how I could be so good at school and feel so incompetent anywhere else. I was an honor student. I excelled at Calculus. In fact, Calculus felt like a fun game to me.
Yet I couldn’t figure out how to do basic things at work.
I beat myself up a lot over this. I was super insecure any time anyone made a comment about me being blonde or ditzy or spacey.
I needed to be perfect, or at least appear perfect to others, and I failed. The more I tried, the worse it got.
After I was diagnosed with PTSD resulting from complex trauma during my childhood, I realized that I struggled so significantly because I was dissociating.
It wasn’t that I was inherently unable to perform basic tasks--I was incapable because I was in survival mode.
It is part of nature to automatically & instinctively go into survival mode when we feel threatened with harm or death. Harm may include physical danger, but more often it includes a sense of psychological danger too.
For those of us who grew up in unhealthy, abusive, and neglectful homes, we spent most of our childhood in survival mode.
We’ve all heard of the survival modes of fight or flight. You’ve likely also heard of the survival mode of freeze.
When in comes to survival from trauma related to relationships, there’s a fourth kind of mode--Fawn.
For those of us who spent our lives in survival mode, we instinctively learned to lean on one particular survival mode or a combination of two modes most of the time.
Although we all have the capacity to respond in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn, we tend to go with the one or two that work the best for us.
The modes we go to unconsciously, instinctively, over and over again, is called our Trauma Type.
Our trauma type defense is typically an unconscious reaction to feeling unsafe. Even once we are out of the traumatic environment, emotional flashbacks bring us right back to the same feelings and survival modes.
Fight types attempt to keep themselves safe by using anger to keep people at a distance or to control those close to them in order to avoid feeling vulnerable.
When a fight type feels they have power and control, they feel the safest.
They use rage and shame tactics to manipulate and control others.
Flight types are people who present as obsessive, perfectionist, and workaholics. They use this perfectionistic aim to attempt to be more loveable.
If they just work harder, perform better, and reach further, they’ll be good enough for someone’s love and approval.
The constant moving & doing is also a distraction technique for flight types. Slowing down & being still is so uncomfortable because it exposes them to the pain they’ve been frantically running from.
In order to feel the closest semblance of safety, freeze types use dissociation to escape from the feeling of threat. They tend to isolate the most in order to avoid potentially harmful people.
They often sleep for long periods of time when triggered.
They may spend a lot of time daydreaming, zoning out watching television, or endlessly scrolling through the internet.
Fawn types set aside their needs and desires to meet the needs and desires of those around them. They feel the safest when they are molding themselves to fit those around them.
If they are the caregivers, then they’ll be needed, and maybe even loved.
During childhood, the fawn type frequently takes on the role of the parent, caring for the adults and the other children in the house.
They could also play the role of friend and confidant to their parent. These roles feel much safer than to be in the role of the child.
Once into adulthood, fawn types tend to get into codependent relationships.
They usually struggle to feel any sense of self.
If you asked a fawn type what they want, they’d struggle to give you an answer that doesn’t involve what someone they are close to wants.
Most people lean toward the survival mode that is most effective in keeping them feeling safe. Many people have a backup response when their go to doesn’t work.
For instance, if someone who is primarily freeze type still feels threatened, they may switch to fawn type with certain people as a secondary response. A flight type may default to fight type when flight is not effective for them in a certain situation.
You likely can remember times when you’ve utilized any number of these survival modes, but your trauma type is the one or two you tend to use the most.
So Why Does All of This Matter?
Regardless of what trauma type you most identify with, it is important to recognize that you did what you needed to do in order to survive.
No one spends large amounts of time in survival mode without having experienced significant feelings of fear of harm.
From this perspective, I can feel gratitude for my high school years when I was constantly struggling to stay present and focused. I may have felt like I wasn’t good at things, but I was doing the best I could in the situation.
Despite feelings of gratitude for my ability to survive, I also recognize how my survival mode interfered with my ability to function as a healthy adult (because I wasn’t actually a healthy adult).
It is difficult for us to switch out of survival mode after spending most of our life utilizing it to keep us alive.
Many problems arise when we continue to live out our lives in survival mode when we are no longer in danger in the way we were growing up.
Our trauma type can become a barrier to building healthy relationships and understanding our role in the world around us.
It can prevent us from being able to respond to situations in a way that is helpful and effective.
Our trauma type can make processing emotions and controlling our emotions very difficult.
Our emotions control us instead of the other way around.
So often, we are thrown into emotional flashbacks and have no idea that we’re actually reacting to emotions we felt in childhood rather than reacting to the situation in the present.
There’s Hope For Healing
The good news is that with the right support, tools, and education, you can learn to stop getting hijacked by unconscious reactions.
Gaining awareness of how your childhood experiences are influencing you today can help you to stop feeling consumed with shame, start feeling self-compassion and self-acceptance, and improve your self-esteem.
Learning to recognize and avoid your common triggers can help you feel safe, secure, and empowered. This feeling of safety reduces your need to default to your trauma type.
A great place to start is Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. His book is by far the best tool I could recommend to anyone to start their healing journey.
If you decide to try counseling, make sure to find a counselor who understands the complexities of complex trauma and how effective treatment for C-PTSD is different in many ways from traditional counseling.
A Note From The Author:
How to Stop Getting Hijacked by Your Emotions: Discover Your Trauma Type
For those who are wanting additional support and want some additional tools, I am currently running a special offer on learning how to stop getting hijacked by your emotions. Click here for details.
About the Author
Candace Whitman is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counseling and is the owner of Wild Moon Counseling. She helps women recover from an unhealthy, abusive, or neglectful childhood.
For questions or to work with me, send me an email at Candace@wildmooncounseling.com