There are many different responses to trauma. We often hear the term “fight or flight,” but what does it really mean, and where does this terminology come from? Reactions to stress evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people to react quickly to life-threatening situations. A carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone fight the threat or flee to safety (Harvard Health Publishing).
The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system presents a two-part system: the sympathetic nervous system, which activates “fight or flight,” and the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports health, growth, and restoration, or “rest and digest.”
The Polyvagal Theory was proposed and developed by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994. It is a comprehensive framework that helps us understand the autonomic nervous system’s role in regulating our physiological and emotional states, as well as our social interactions. The theory is named after the two vagus nerves that are part of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for controlling bodily functions that occur automatically, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate. The ANS has two primary branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). These branches work together to maintain balance in response to various environmental and emotional cues.
The Polyvagal Theory proposes three distinct physiological states that the autonomic nervous system can engage in:
Social Engagement System: This is the optimal state for healthy social interactions. The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, leading to a calm state where people feel safe, connected, and able to engage in social interactions without fear or defensiveness. This state is associated with feelings of safety and trust.
Sympathetic Fight or Flight: In response to a perceived threat, the sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant. This prepares the body to either fight or flee. Heart rate increases, muscles tense, and energy is mobilised for quick action. This state is appropriate for dealing with acute danger.
Dorsal Vagal Freeze: In situations of extreme danger or when people are completely overwhelmed, the most primitive aspect of the parasympathetic nervous system (the dorsal vagal complex) can become dominant. This state leads to immobilisation, dissociation, and shutdown.
According to the Polyvagal Theory, the body’s responses to various situations are not simply controlled by one branch of the autonomic nervous system being activated while the other is suppressed. Instead, the interactions between these branches are dynamic and context-dependent. The theory suggests that our physiological and emotional reactions are based on an assessment of safety and threat cues in the environment.
“The freeze response,” or “freezing,” is a term corresponding to what clinicians typically call hypervigilance. It involves being constantly on guard, watchful, and alert (Gray), which can become a reality for many survivors of trauma. In addition to the fight, flight and freeze responses described above, there is the fawn response. The fawn response is utilised in the form of complying after fight, flight, or freeze responses were unsuccessful. This response to a threat is common for people who have experienced abuse, especially those with narcissistic caregivers or partners.
The fawn response, in other words, can be described as “people-pleasing” behaviour, often to your detriment. You may use compliance and helpfulness to avoid abuse; you sacrifice happiness and well-being regardless of how poorly someone treats you. This trauma response is often used to diffuse conflict and return to a feeling of safety.
The flop trauma response refers to the state when we become entirely physically or mentally unresponsive and may even faint. Fainting in response to being paralysed by fear is caused when someone gets so overwhelmed by the stress that they physically collapse. Animals “play dead” or faint when approached by a dangerous predator — fighting or running away would only stimulate the predator more. Another example of the flop response is fainting in the presence of blood or an injection.
The aim of therapy for complex trauma is to help clients operate from a social engagement system with a more rational response rather than cycling constantly through immobilisation/freeze and mobilisation.
Trauma response management is essential to overall health. If your stress levels affect your quality of life, you may need help or tools to reduce your potential for health risks. By seeking professional help and engaging in a therapeutic process, you can develop healthy coping behaviours. You will increase your chances of dealing with trauma and stress effectively.
Ania Harnden completed training with the “EMDR Training Australia and New Zealand”, a training provider that presents an EMDR training program authorised by Dr Francine Shapiro and her training institute, the EMDR Institute. Ania Harnden is a member of EMDR International Association (EMDRIA).
To book an appointment with Ania, select Online Booking or call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422.
Giarratano, Leah (2018). Clinical Skills for Managing Complex Traumatisation. Sydney, Australia: Talomin Books.
Gray, Jeffrey Allan (1988). The Psychology of Fear and Stress. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Harvard Health Publishing (2020). “Understanding the Stress Response.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response