CPTSD & Trauma Types: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn
Updated: Jan 25
Hearing the term, "I went into fight or flight" mode is something that's commonly said when we're describing our body's response to perceiving that we're in danger. But did you know there were actually 4 responses our body has? Penned by Pete Walker, MFT, we'll call them the 4F types: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
Complex PTSD (CPTSD) consists of emotional flashbacks, toxic shame, self-abandonment, a harsh inner critic, and social anxiety (Walker, 2013). In PTSD, people usually have specific visual memories. CPTSD is not that way. There are no visuals involved; only emotional and internal triggers, which makes it, well...complex. It is environmentally caused from childhood abuse and/or neglect and has nothing to do with genetics. In individuals who have CPTSD, they tend to only use one to two of the 4F types, which becomes a trauma type. People who experience parenting that's "good enough" arrive at adulthood flexibly moving between the 4F types. When real danger is present, they're able to access all of their 4F choices.
In childhood where there's abuse/neglect, the child will gravitate toward a specific 4F type to survive, which becomes our trauma type in adulthood. When we're triggered as adults, we'll lean into whichever 4F type we used as a child to survive. When you're in one of your 4F types, you are in an emotional flashback. You're having a trauma response. Emotional flashbacks are a form of disassociation.
It's important to note that sometimes, people's F types show up at different types on people, places, or situations that trigger them. Sometimes, different times of our lives are associated with a different F type, like when we were a teenager and were mostly living out of fight mode. When you don't have trauma, you don't engage in the unhealthy parts of these F types. When a F type comes up, it is always a response to trauma.
Let's dive into these 4F trauma types so you can see which one you might be gravitating towards the most when you're triggered.
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. Individuals who are narcissists are fight types, but not all fight types are narcissists. Those who aren't true narcissists have the ability to come to the understanding that their intimidation, criticism, sarcasm, and aggressive behavior is ruining their relationships.
Fight types can become sociopathic, or as Walker (2013) likes to call a charming bully. They're able to be friendly some of the time, and may possibility listen or be helpful occasionally, but they still use their contempt to control and overpower others. They will use scapegoats to dump their cruel and bitter criticism.
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.
It's pretty easy for flight types to become addicted to their own adrenaline. Pursuing risky and dangerous activities gives them an adrenaline-high, which also means that addiction in general is something they're in danger in, including work, keeping busy, and stimulating substances. Flight types who have been severely traumatized may develop obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Freeze types have the deepest unconscious belief that people = danger. Social anxiety is common in all 4F types, but freeze types stop attempting to relate to others and become very isolated. Many also sacrifice the possibility of love.
The scapegoat child is usually the one that's forced to lean towards the freeze response. The freeze response requires the right-brain to go offline, causing them to disconnect from experiencing any abandonment pain and protecting them from social interactions that might risk triggering feelings of being retraumatized. Freeze types are able to change their internal channel whenever they're having an inner experience that makes them uncomfortable.
The freeze type is the 4F types that requires a therapeutic relationship more than any other because their isolation prevents them from having a healing relationship through friendship.
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.
Fawn types are the most developmentally arrested because they're been shamed and scared out of developing a healthy sense of self.
Now that we've briefly covered the 4 trauma types, is there one you resonate with the most? Or maybe you know you enter into one of the trauma types when you're triggered, but if that's not protecting you, you go to another one.
It can be incredibly empowering to learn more about why we behave the way we do. In the next post, we're going to talk about specific steps you can take to recover from each trauma response so that when you're triggered, you're able to take a step back and realize if you're actually in danger and learn how to move flexibly between all of the 4F responses.
Remember, our bodies were created to tap into those 4F responses so that we can assess danger and respond to it appropriately. When we've been abused/neglected in childhood, we chose one or two of the 4F types to cling to based off of our environment and how we could best get our needs met as children. When we became adults, anything that triggered us caused us to step into that one (or two) 4F type(s) that made us feel safe in childhood.
A huge component of healing means we have to do the work.
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.