Understanding Trauma Responses: Unraveling the Complexity
By Alina P. Halonen, LPCC, CCTP
As trauma-trained therapists, it is crucial to have a deep understanding of the various trauma responses individuals may exhibit when faced with traumatic experiences. Trauma responses are adaptive survival mechanisms that aim to protect individuals during overwhelming or life-threatening situations. In this blog, we will explore in detail the fight response, flight response, freeze response, fawn/submit response, dorsal vagal collapse response, and attach cry for help response. We will also delve into the role of early attachment history in the development of these responses, why the submit, collapse, and cry for help responses are often missed, and provide specific patterns to identify the fawn/submit response, dorsal vagal collapse response, and attach cry for help response. Additionally, we will explore the neurochemical reactions that activate a client's submit/collapse response, supported by the latest research in the field.
The Fight Response
The fight response is an instinctive reaction when confronted with danger or trauma. It manifests as a heightened state of arousal, aggression, or physical confrontation. This response activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol (LeDoux, 2014). Clients experiencing the fight response may exhibit signs of irritability, anger, impulsivity, or an intense desire to regain control over their environment.
The Flight Response
The flight response involves an overwhelming urge to escape or avoid threatening situations. Individuals experiencing the flight response may seek physical or emotional distance from the source of danger. This response activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and initiates the release of stress hormones (Heim et al., 2000). Clients may display restlessness, restlessness, a strong desire to flee or engage in avoidance behaviors.
The Freeze Response
The freeze response is an automatic survival mechanism triggered by the perception of extreme threat. It manifests as immobility, emotional numbness, or dissociation. During the freeze response, there is increased activity in the periaqueductal gray and reduced activation in the prefrontal cortex, impacting decision-making and cognitive processing (LeDoux, 2014). Clients may exhibit a lack of emotional expression, feeling detached from their bodies or surroundings, or a sense of being "stuck" in the traumatic experience.
The Fawn/Submit Response
The fawn/submit response involves a strong inclination to appease or please others when faced with danger or trauma. Individuals exhibiting this response prioritize the needs and desires of others over their own to ensure safety. The fawn/submit response often develops as a result of early attachment experiences, such as abuse or neglect, where individuals learn to adapt by adopting submissive behaviors (Herman, 1997). Clients may display people-pleasing tendencies, difficulty asserting boundaries, a fear of conflict, or an excessive need for approval.
The Dorsal Vagal Collapse Response
The dorsal vagal collapse response, also known as the "shutdown" response, occurs when individuals become immobilized or emotionally disconnected due to trauma. It is an extreme form of the freeze response characterized by a sense of hopelessness, depression, or disconnection from the environment. This response is linked to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, particularly the dorsal vagal complex, which leads to a state of collapse and disengagement (Porges, 2011). Clients may exhibit signs of profound sadness, social withdrawal, apathy, or difficulty engaging in activities they once enjoyed.
Neurochemical Reactions Activating Submit/Collapse Response
The submit/collapse response is associated with neurochemical reactions in the body. When individuals experience extreme stress or trauma, the HPA axis is activated, leading to the release of stress hormones, including cortisol and norepinephrine (Sapolsky, 2017). This neurochemical cascade can result in a state of emotional and physical shutdown, contributing to the submit/collapse response. The release of opioids, such as endorphins, may also play a role in numbing emotional pain and facilitating a withdrawal response (Porges, 2011).
The Attach Cry for Help Response
The attac cry for help response involves seeking support, assistance, or connection from others during or after a traumatic event. It highlights the innate human need for attachment and emphasizes the role of social support in the healing process. Early attachment experiences significantly influence the development of this response, as secure attachments provide a foundation for seeking help and forming healthy relationships (Bowlby, 1988). Clients may reach out to friends, family, or professionals for emotional and practical support, express a desire for connection, or display heightened vulnerability.
Why Submit, Collapse, and Cry for Help Responses are Often Missed
Submit, collapse, and cry for help-responses are often missed for several reasons. Firstly, societal norms and stigmas surrounding vulnerability and asking for help can inhibit individuals from openly expressing these responses. There may be a fear of judgment, rejection, or further harm. Additionally, these responses can be subtle and easily misinterpreted. Clients may display behaviors that are easily overlooked or attributed to other causes. Furthermore, shame, fear, and learned behaviors can contribute to the concealment of these responses, making them less noticeable to therapists and others involved in the individual's life. It is essential for therapists to create a safe and non-judgmental space that encourages clients to explore and express these responses freely.
Understanding trauma responses is essential for trauma-trained therapists to provide effective support and promote healing. The fight, flight, freeze, fawn/submit, dorsal vagal collapse, and attach cry for help responses are adaptive survival mechanisms that individuals may employ during traumatic experiences. Early attachment history greatly influences the development of these responses, highlighting the importance of comprehensive assessments. Submit, collapse, and cry for help responses are often missed due to societal norms, subtle manifestations, and individual factors. By recognizing specific patterns associated with the fawn/submit, dorsal vagal collapse, and attach cry for help responses, therapists can create a safe and supportive therapeutic environment for their client's healing journey.
LeDoux, J. (2014). Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. Viking.
Heim, C., Newport, D. J., Mletzko, T., Miller, A. H., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2000). The link between childhood trauma and depression: Insights from HPA axis studies in humans. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27(1-2), 119-136.
Herman, J. L. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books.
Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. WW Norton & Company.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Basic Books.
Sapolsky, R. M. (2017). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. Penguin Books.
Please note that the references provided are for informational purposes only and should not replace professional advice or guidance from a qualified therapist or mental health professional.
© Alina P. Halonen, LPCC, CCTP 2023. All Rights Reserved.