It's More Than Just Fight or Flight

How trauma responses manifest in human trafficking survivors.

Posted Feb 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Most people are familiar with the term “fight or flight,” which describes two of the most common forms of stress responses—either retreating or sticking around to fight. Another stress response is the “freeze” response, which is the inability to move or act against the threat.

However, there is another stress response that people may not be familiar with called “fawn,” which can best be explained as appeasing or complying with an abuser as a way to survive. Coined by a trauma survivor, Peter Walker, fawning is a self-protective behavior, stemming from the desire to minimize confrontation in dangerous or uncomfortable situations.

This type of response often results when someone lacks the power or ability to fight or flee, such as the case in situations of child abuse, intimate partner violence, or human trafficking. Fawning is a temporary fix, serving the purpose of fostering feelings of safety and security among victims in the moment. But long term, it can have negative ramifications to survivors’ self-esteem and ability to assert themselves, leaving them vulnerable to further abuse.

Survivors of long-term intimate partner violence or human trafficking who react to fear with “fawn” responses often put the needs and desires of the perpetrators before their own. They may strive to be helpful, acquiescent, or people-pleasers. However, this can prohibit them from acknowledging an abusive relationship contingent upon giving up their own needs, desires, and freedoms. Survivors with tendencies towards fawn responses often struggle with low self-esteem, self-anger, and guilt, lack boundaries with others, and are uncomfortable expressing their own opinions. They can be vulnerable to being taken advantage of through emotional abuse or exploitation.

Behavioral signs of “fawn” responses include being unable to say how you really think or feel, caring for others to your own detriment, always saying “yes” to requests, flattering others, avoiding conflict, and feeling taken advantage of. We all tend to seek out relationships that feel comfortable and familiar. For survivors of violence and trafficking, unfortunately this may mean that abusive relationships are actually comforting because they feel familiar or “deserved.” Such a response may also serve to bond victims to their abuser, reducing the likelihood that they will actively seek to escape the situation, or that they will report the perpetrators to law enforcement and cooperate in prosecution cases.

Numerous physiological changes occur in response to a threat, which may be heightened for survivors of trauma who can develop an exaggerated or overactive stress response. In this case, physiological responses are triggered by fear of a perceived threat that has been conditioned through previous negative experiences. The sympathetic nervous system drives the fight-or-flight response, while the parasympathetic nervous system drives freezing. Depending on the threat, the sympathetic nervous system may trigger a fight-or-flight response. When that’s not possible, the parasympathetic nervous system will shut down the system, causing freeze or fawn. How people react depends on which system dominates the response at the time, and how they usually respond to stress. Most trauma survivors tend to lean toward one type of stress response.

These heightened reactive experiences as a result of surviving repeated or complex trauma which occur in the brain and nervous system can become ingrained. While in the short-term, these automatic stress responses are adaptive, and related to survival instincts, repeated exposure to severe trauma can literally lead to a "rewiring" of the brain. Your survival instincts can get stuck in the “on” position. Perceived threats are different for each person. Because they can show up in many different and not obvious ways, people may not recognize behaviors that are actually reactions to trauma. For example, increased appetite and unhealthy food cravings can result from increased cortisol levels, which are stress hormones. Decision-making may not be rational because decisions are being made based on perceived threats that may not even be real. Like dissociation, survivors may employ the freeze response by isolating themselves from other people to avoid further pain.

Survivors may have constant feelings of dread if they are stuck in the fawn response. Or, if they are stuck in the flight response, they may feel restless, helpless, fidgety, or tense. Survivors may experience the effects of fight or flight as intense physical sensations in response to triggers.  Compulsive behaviors can help survivors avoid difficult feelings. Similarly, obsessive-compulsive behaviors can manifest as flight responses, used to manage fear. As a flight response, survivors of violence and trafficking may express hypervigilance and anxiety around feeling trapped or cornered, even when there is no threat or danger. This is because living in a survival mode long-term has impacted their ability to determine when something is an actual threat. Living this way can also wear survivors’ reactions down, and even impact their ability to communicate effectively in areas associated with learning and memory, making it difficult to think or communicate clearly. Survivors of trauma who tend to have fight responses may be hypersensitive to feeling threatened and may be perceived to be angry, hostile, and argumentative. Or, they may have a very short fuse and are easily triggered.

Survivors may also not be fully aware of how their responses to the traumatic events that they have experienced impacts their current behaviors and perceptions of the world around them. Trauma-informed approaches to help survivors must account for survivors’ experiences and acknowledge the many potential negative, long-term effects of trauma. Survivors can feel invalidated or retraumatized if the severity of their experiences is not recognized. Prioritizing survivor’s safety and autonomy can help avoid retraumatization. Helping survivors to understand and explain how trauma has affected their brain and their responses in the long-term can be incredibly empowering. It can be difficult for survivors to learn how to recognize the difference between a real and an imagined threat. They struggle with being able to feel a sense of safety. Avoiding living in a constant survival mode will likely take years to master.

But there is hope—survivors can overcome these obstacles with time and effort. Some techniques that are often useful are practicing setting boundaries, articulating their opinions, saying “no,” and prioritizing their own needs over others’. Mindfulness, yoga, self-soothing, and other grounding and self-care practices can also help survivors learn how to wait out or overcome the stress responses that may not be serving them well. Seeking support through psychological counseling is especially important.