Recovering From Trauma Types, Emotional Flashbacks, & CPTSD: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn
Updated: Feb 1
In a previous blog post, we discussed complex PTSD (CPTSD) and how it causes people to cling to one of the 4F types (fight, flight, freeze, and fawn) in adulthood, called trauma responses. To give yourself a refresher on that topic, you can reference the post here.
Living out of one of the 4F types is an exhausting cycle of feeling as though something is inherently wrong with you and/or other people. The inner and outer critic are incredibly loud, and many experience toxic shame spirals. Thanks to Pete Walker, MFT (2013) and his work around CPTSD, he's provided tangible ways we can work through these trauma responses in order to flexibly move between all of the 4F types, shrink our inner and outer critic, and recognize our triggers.
Recovering from the Fight Type Trauma Response
Fight types unconsciously believe that control and power can create safety, secure love, and satisfy abandonment. They learn to respond to feelings of abandonment with anger, and many use contempt (a blend of narcissistic rage and disgust) as a way to shame and intimidate others. They treat others as if they're extensions of themselves. It's important for fight types to learn how to redirect their rage toward the circumstances that caused their awful childhood. Underneath those feelings of rage are actually feelings of abandonment. Crying to release the anger that fight types hold is especially powerful and therapeutic for them. When we're hurt, half of us is mad and the other half is sad.
The behavior of fight types tends to alienate them from others, which perpetuates their abandonment feelings. In order to understand their triggers, fight types can benefit from learning how to take timeouts when they notice they're being overly critical/triggered.
Learning the empathy response of the fawn type is especially beneficial because it helps the fight type imagining how it feels to be the person they're interacting with.
Recovering from the Flight Type Trauma Response
Flights types are unconsciously and obsessively driven by the belief that perfection will make them lovable and safe. Achievement is always on their mind. As children, they respond to family trauma on a hyperactive continuum, moving between the extremes of being a star student and the ADHD drop out. They attempt to flee their internal pain by remaining busy with something. It's common for flight types to have left-brain dissociation, which means that they're constantly thinking to distract themselves from their underlying abandonment pain.
Flight types have a habit of staying one step ahead of their pain. They enjoy being busy and may even pride themselves internally on being workaholics while externally acknowledging it's an issue. It's common for them to be over-analytical and get stuck in their head. Once they understand CPTSD, they have to start the process of moving into their feelings, and soon after, they have to start the deeper work of grieving their childhood.
When flight types are triggered, their response is to get busy with something. When flight types experience an emotional flashback, fear and anxiety are running the propellors, causing them to hurry off into scattered activity. They run from their hurt and have a difficult time sitting with heavy feelings or uncomfortable emotions/experiences.
When this happens, the flight type can rescue themself from panic mode by repeating an inverted cliche: "Don't just do something, stand there." Learning how to meditate and breathe will be important recovery components for flight types.
Recovering from the Freeze Type Trauma Response
The majority of freeze types are unaware of their inner critic or that they're in emotional pain. They have a tendency to project perfectionistic expectations onto others rather than themselves, and this survival tactic as a child helped them use the imperfections of other people as a justification for isolation. Back then, isolation was a behavior that sought safety. For freeze types, addiction is incredibly common. Alcoholism, drugs, work, screen time, social media, gaming, videos, TV, etc., are all examples of addictions freeze types have.
As mentioned in the previous post, freeze types require a therapeutic relationship more than the other types because their isolation prevents them from finding relational healing through friendship. Freeze types require gradual trust-building, which then opens up their ability to hear the role of awful parenting in their childhood and how it affected them. This starts the journey of shrinking the critic, which also promotes the grief of childhood.
Coping with Trauma-related Dissociation by Suzette Boon is a self-help book that's been highly recommended by freeze types.
Recovering from the Fawn Type Trauma Response
Fawn types (codependent) have the unconscious belief that the admission to any relationship is to merge with the wishes, demands, and needs of others while forfeiting their boundaries, rights, needs, and preferences. Fawn types learn at an early age that attachment and safety can be gained by becoming helpful to their exploitative parents.
Fawn types are the children of at least one narcissistic parent. The child has to take care of the needs of the parent who acts like a tantruming, needy child. It's common for children in this role to become the substitute spouse, coach, confidant, or housekeeper. In worst case scenarios, the child may be sexually exploited.
When fawn types learn about CPTSD and the 4F types, they feel incredible relief because it helps them recognize the compulsion that draws them toward people who exploit them.
Recovery for fawn types involves shrinking her listening defense (they give themselves away by over-listening to people) and practicing their emotional and verbal self-expression. Even the thought of saying "no" can be a trigger for fawn types, sending them into an emotional flashback. Once they realize that they were forced to stifle their individuality in childhood, they can then grieve those losses to help them work on reclaiming their self-expression.
Continuums of Positive & Negative 4F Responses
These 4F types are normal, biological responses our body has to danger. Adults who grew up with "good enough" parenting are able to move flexibly between the 4F types, but children who had parents that were abusive and/or emotionally neglectful tend to cling to one of the 4F types.
Each of these types sits on a continuum. These types are not inherently bad or destructive, but they can be when one of those types is our only response to danger that actually isn't present and sends us into an emotional flashback.
At its healthiest, the fight response allows us to be assertive. At its unhealthiest, the fight response causes bullying behavior.
Flight responses, when healthy, are efficient. When unhealthy, flight responses are driven away from themselves.
Freeze responses can give us a peaceful feeling when it's healthy, however when it's an unhealthy freeze response, it can cause catatonia.
And lastly, when healthy, fawn types know when to compromise. When unhealthy, they sacrifice their own wants, needs, and desires due to their anxiety about the relationship.
We would love to hear from you about what you learned about yourself or your childhood from reading these posts about CPTSD and trauma responses. How do you know when you're having an emotional flashback? What are some triggers you've realized send you into an emotional flashback? What are a some steps you take to move through the emotional flashbacks?
Healing from CPTSD is a journey. Journeys don't usually have end destinations. We keep moving through time, one foot in front of the other, healing and becoming better versions of ourselves than we were yesterday. On this journey, self-compassion will be one of the most important tools you have.
It wasn't your fault that you had emotionally neglectful or abusive parents. You deserved better. It wasn't fair. And for that, I am so, so sorry. I know how hard this has been.
But now, it's your responsibility to heal. Let's do it together.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.
At Root Counseling, all of our therapists conduct therapy from an attachment-based lens and help clients work through their trauma type to develop healthy responses to triggers. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.