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  • Writer's pictureEmily Smith

The 5 Trauma Responses: Navigating the Terrain of Complex Trauma

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Trauma is not a one-size-fits-all experience. For individuals who have endured complex trauma, their responses often encompass a complex tapestry of emotions and reactions. These reactions are often created subconsciously, within our minds and bodies, as a means of survival. They are defensive strategies that keep us alive - much like the rabbit in the forest protecting itself from it's predator.

It's likely that you've heard of Fight, Flight or Freeze before. However, there are other some other lesser-known responses that trauma specialists are familiar with identifying and working with to help bring their clients to sustainable healing and change. Below are the 5 trauma responses considered in the treatment of complex trauma:


The fight response is marked by a tendency to confront and resist threats, even when they are emotional or psychological. In the context of complex trauma, this might manifest as persistent anger, defensiveness, or a tendency to react aggressively to perceived danger. Individuals with a fight response may struggle with feelings of irritability and may find it challenging to trust others.


The flight response involves an overwhelming urge to escape or avoid threats. For those with complex trauma, this may translate into behaviors such as avoiding difficult emotions or situations, overworking as a means of distraction, or engaging in addictive behaviors. The flight response can hinder emotional processing and healing as it involves avoiding rather than confronting the source of distress.


Freezing is a response that involves becoming immobilized or emotionally numb in the face of danger. In complex trauma, this might manifest as dissociation, emotional numbness, or feeling "checked out" during triggering situations. Individuals who freeze may struggle with feeling disconnected from their emotions and experiences.


The fawn response is characterized by a strong desire to appease and please others, often at the expense of one's own needs and boundaries. Individuals with complex trauma may develop this response as a survival mechanism, seeking safety and avoiding conflict by accommodating others. These individuals are often known for putting the needs of other's before their own consistently, and often hyper-vigilantly anticipating the those needs. This can lead to a lack of self-assertiveness and difficulty in setting healthy boundaries.


Similar to the fawn response, the appease response involves striving to appease others, but with a focus on seeking validation and approval. This may manifest as a strong need for external validation, perfectionism, and a fear of rejection. Individuals with an appease response may struggle with self-esteem and self-worth.

It's important to understand that while we may gravitate more toward one response versus another based on our own individual experiences, it's common for these trauma responses to be considered on a spectrum. Our natural tendency may shift within certain relationships and in certain circumstances. Understanding these trauma responses is a crucial step in the healing journey for those who have experienced complex trauma. Here are some strategies for navigating healing and recovery:

  1. Self-Awareness: Recognize and acknowledge your primary trauma response. Awareness is the first step towards healing.

  2. Therapy: Seek support from a therapist experienced in trauma. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore and process your trauma responses and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

  3. Self-Compassion: Practice self-compassion and self-care. Be gentle with yourself as you navigate the challenges of healing from complex trauma.

  4. Boundaries: Work on setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. Learning to assert your needs and protect your emotional well-being is an essential part of recovery.

  5. Mindfulness: Incorporate mindfulness and grounding techniques into your daily routine to help manage overwhelming emotions and stay present.

  6. Supportive Relationships: Surround yourself with supportive, understanding friends and loved ones who can provide validation and encouragement.

Complex trauma elicits a myriad of trauma responses, each reflecting a unique survival mechanism. By recognizing these responses and seeking support, individuals can begin their journey toward healing and recovery. Remember that healing is a process, and you have the strength and resilience to navigate it. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you embark on this transformative path towards well-being.

fawn response trauma response


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