What's Your Trauma Response?
Most of us have this unexplainable fear of snakes. Maybe it’s from all the stories we heard about snakes while we were growing up which conditioned us to believe that snakes are poisonous and dangerous creatures. It’s honestly uncomfortable even writing about them.
If someone came into a room you were in and shouted “snake” and you have an inherent fear of snakes, you’ll run away even not having seen the alleged snake. That’s what we call a trauma response. An involuntary action or coping mechanism towards something, someone, or a distressing event that has scarred you on the inside.
If you constantly hear “snake”, your nervous system will become hyperaroused – extremely anxious, angry, out of control, hyper-alert, confused, or uncomfortable which will leave you always on edge as if there is an actual threat. These feelings can overwhelm you and cause you to freeze, fight, run away (flight), or fawn – which are the four responses to trauma.
When you’re continually exposed to narcissistic abuse, your sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for preparing you to combat stress and emergencies, becomes hyper-aroused and you automatically retract to a trauma response. So, the freeze, fight, flight, and fawn responses to trauma are always turned on and your body also releases stress hormones repeatedly.
Let’s break each one down so that you can easily identify how you’ve been responding to narcissistic abuse and trauma. Understanding how you’re showing up is the first step towards knowing how you can heal. It’s such an important thing you are doing – as you read this. If you see yourself in either one or multiple trauma responses, please remember that this is how you’ve learned to survive – it does not in any way define you or restrict your healing. The abuse happened to you – the consequences are not reflective of who you are.
In the face of everyday stressors, these trauma responses are healthy as they work to protect us from short-term harmful threats. But in narcissistic abuse and trauma, your body is overexerting itself with the responses which then becomes physically, emotionally, and mentally damaging in the following ways;
This trauma response is all about self-preservation even at the expense of other people. It stems from the belief that you need to maintain power and control over other people to earn or keep their acceptance, love and to ensure safety. This may turn you into an angry, aggressive, and confrontational person who is always ready to fight to establish that you are indeed powerful. Conflict for you is a trigger and you feel the need to stand up for yourself whether you’re right or wrong.
A person with the “fight” trauma response may have the following characteristics;
An explosive temper and sudden outbursts. The smallest things can trigger them into anger.
They don't listen or take in other people’s points of view. It’s their way or the highway.
They can be considered bullies who pick on other people sometimes for no reason at all.
Excessively controlling and demanding. Expects perfection and obedience.
An exaggerated sense of self and entitlement. Always comes first and doesn’t take no for an answer.
People with these tendencies can be mislabeled, or may actually be diagnosed as narcissists and sociopaths.
As the word flight suggests, this trauma response is about “running away” from the situation or dismissing it all together which is considered avoidant behavior. It thrives in isolation and withdrawal from human connection. People with persistent flight responses are overachievers, workaholics, and perfectionists who depend on what they’re doing to help them find acceptance, love, praise, and safety. Their worth is rooted in performance and they bury themselves in what they do thinking that it might help them escape conflict, threat, or avoid the consequences of narcissistic abuse.
A person with the “flight” trauma response may have the following characteristics;
They’re always busy doing something, going somewhere, or rushing around. Workaholics.
Chronic overthinkers who obsess over details and things.
They are micromanagers of people and situations and want to oversee every detail.
They find it hard to sit in stillness or relax because of their need to keep busy.
Harbor feelings of anxiety and panic.
People with these tendencies can be mislabeled as having bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and mood disorder.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever played a game called green light red light but I have and I will tell you about it. When someone says “green light” everybody moves and when it’s “red light” everyone should immediately stop or freeze in movement. The freeze trauma response is as if someone shouts “red light” and everything stops in time. In some cases, the sympathetic nervous system quite literally stops functioning properly because it’s overwhelmed by stress and trauma resulting in a neurological shutdown. It’s also characterized by one feeling as if they’ve disconnected from their body/mind and they can’t move or properly register what’s happening around them. It can be likened to a state of paralysis.
A person with the “freeze” trauma response may have the following characteristics;
Feel stuck as if there is no way out of a situation or problem.
Completely dissociate from their thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity which may result in brain fog. They also have a hard time remembering things or concentrating.
May likely be what we call the “couch potato” who wants to do nothing else but lay down and binge-watch Netflix, hibernate, sleep, daydream or spend a lot of hours online to check out of reality.
May be an underachiever who isn’t personally driven to get results.
Avoids human connections and prefers isolation and spending time alone.
People with these tendencies can be mislabeled as having clinical depression, schizophrenia, and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Common with children of narcissistic parents/caregivers, fawning is all about people-pleasing. It stands on the belief that other people need to approve of or give permission to you so that you can survive. It’s about giving up the autonomy you hold by forfeiting your needs, boundaries, preferences, and rights to please others. In extremity, fawning deprives you of a relationship with yourself in ways that keep you last because everyone else comes first. If you are a fawner, you are most susceptible to narcissistic relationships.
A person with the “fawn” trauma response may have the following characteristics;
Lack of identity. They don’t know who they are or what they are worth is and leave it to others to define it for them.
They are most likely known as the nice person, yes person, or the entertainers.
They can’t stand up for themselves or fear doing so. Have a hard time saying "no” or enforcing personal boundaries.
Very concerned about being likable to others and fitting in.
Their relationships are imbalanced because others easily take advantage of them.
People with these tendencies can be mislabeled as codependent or victims.
A trauma response with negative consequences is not a life sentence. It is your brain's way of protecting you from danger. If you see yourself in any of the four trauma responses, I’m ready to walk you through it extensively so that you can understand yourself better and we can chart a way forward that’s helpful to your healing. Give yourself some grace. Things can be unlearned and you can adopt healthier ways of dealing with trauma from narcissistic abuse. It is important to seek professional help with a trained trauma therapist who uses somatic/body focused therapies to help you truly heal your trauma.