When I found out about the 4fs trauma response model my actions and decisions started to make sense.
I was happy and sad at the same time. Things I was confused about made sense, now I saw how I could go beyond my habitual reactions. However I could also see how many opportunities I had missed because of them.
It took effort and patience but I overcame most of my triggered responses and realised they were making me unhappy because I didn’t know they existed and I had wrongly assumed they were me.
It was a huge relief and my experience of life improved immensely. I took more risks in my career, finances and relationships.
In this article I will explain what the 4fs are and how to identify which one you are and how to start going beyond them.
What is Trauma
Trauma is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that affects people in different ways. It can be a result of a single event, such as an accident, a natural disaster or a violent attack. This is called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It can also be from chronic and repeated exposure to stressors, such as abuse, neglect and oppression. This type of trauma is known as complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). It is most often developed in childhood and is not due to one traumatic event but an accumulation of childhood abuse. In this article we will be predominantly talking about complex trauma, although it applies to PTSD as well.
What are Trauma Responses in Relation to the 4Fs Trauma Model?
One of the ways that trauma affects people is by influencing how they respond to perceived threats or dangers.
These stress responses are automatic. They are shaped by biological, psychological and environmental factors.
We develop these responses for survival. Meaning, they help people cope with the immediate situation and protect themselves from further harm.
However, these responses can also become maladaptive and problematic when they persist beyond the traumatic situation and are triggered by things that are not actually threatening.
In these cases the responses can interfere with the person’s ability to function normally and to heal from the trauma.
The 4Fs Model of Trauma Responses
One of the most widely used frameworks for understanding these responses is the 4Fs model, which was developed by psychologist Pete Walker.
Healthy 4Fs Response v Unhealthy 4Fs Response
The 4Fs trauma responses you are going to learn are natural and healthy stress responses when people are not traumatized.
It’s when people have trauma they display unhealthy versions of these.
A healthy response is appropriate and in line with the level of threat. We all display each of the 4fs in different situations, although we may have one that is more dominant we generally have access to all four and use them as the situation demands.
It does not matter which response it is, when we are carrying trauma we will display unhealthy versions. Our reactions will be out of proportion to the situation and in some cases completely inappropriate.
Let’s take a closer look at the 4Fs of trauma responses.
The fight trauma response is an aggressive, combative reaction to a threat.
It is a healthy response when we react to defend ourselves from real danger. We might do this physically or verbally.
In a person with trauma this becomes dysfunctional.
People with a dominant fight response to trauma react with anger when they want to feel safe. And they feel the only way to connect with others is to control people. In other words they use intimidation.
It often come across as irritability. It seems nearly everything annoys them.
Spoiled children, oldest children who mimic the aggressive parent often develop an unhealthy fight response.
You will see these people react aggressively to simple disagreements. They bark or give angry looks or use sarcasm. Looking from the outside this looks over the top, but to the fight type in that moment they have flash backed to a time when they disagreed with their parents or caregivers and were punished or ignored for it.
Therefore their anger is a response to the feeling of being abandoned which comes with a feeling of shame.
The irony is their angry responses cause people to avoid them.
We know a healthy flight response when we see it.
When we are faced with a dangerous animal or if we are crossing the road and the car is traveling faster than we judged, we automatically run.
A traumatic flight response, like all the 4 fs, is out of proportion with the situation and is triggered by the feeling of abandonment and shame.
It does not show up in making a run for it every time. It shows up as busyness. I have a family member who does this. She will turn up and start cleaning and tidying non stop, when she is finished she will barely sit before she leaves.
In children it can show up as hyperactivity.
A person with a dominant flight response will be planning and worrying when not in busy action.
Remember all of this is an attempt to escape the feelings of abandonment and shame.
If the people with a flight response had a moto it would be “Don’t let the pain catch up.” and “If I am perfect I will be fine”.
“Like a deer stuck in headlights”.
The deer is so scared and does not know what to do, so it freezes. This is the underlying feeling of people with a dominant freeze response.
A healthy freeze response is when we stop to take in the danger or situation before we react. Animals do this, it also acts as a camouflage as predators detect movement.
Out of all the 4Fs trauma responses, people with a freeze response see others as a danger the most.
With this trauma response type the way a person avoids the feeling of abandonment and shame experienced in childhood is to internally disconnect from the situation and their thoughts and emotions.
You will see them freeze or zone out in when they get into an argument or an uncomfortable social interaction.
Another way freeze responders show this trauma type is to zone out browsing online, binge watching shows and playing video games. These take them away from the nasty inner critic that is telling them they are worthless and in danger.
They can end up spending too much time alone because it feels safe.
The fawning trauma response is a survival strategy that involves placating the perceived threat. They believe that if they can make the other person happy they will not get harmed or abandoned.
An example of a healthy fawn response would be if you accidentally spilled someone’s coffee, so you apologise and offer to buy them another one.
People with a trauma fawn response will put themselves and their needs below everyone else’s. You will recognize these people because they are overly attentive listeners and avoid saying anything about themselves.
They are classic co-dependents.
For a more detailed look at the fawn response and how to heal from it go to: The Fawn Response: The Hidden Trauma Response that Keeps You Stuck in Toxic Relationships.
Which of the 4Fs Are You?
Remember, these responses are not mutually exclusive or fixed. People can use different responses at different times depending on the situation and their personal history.
We cannot fit life into a box for our own convenience, although we try!
But simplifying life can help to get across and understand complicated or new subjects.
Trauma responses are no different. We are never purely one over the others, we usually have a back up response and when that does do not work we go to others.
Here are some common hybrid types of trauma responses:
- Fight – Fawn
- Flight – Freeze
- Fight – Freeze
- Fight – Fawn
Knowing your dominant and secondary responses can help you understand yourself better and identify your strengths and areas for improvement. It can also help you recognize how your response affects your relationships and your well-being.
To find which one you are :
Look at the percentage of time you spend in each one.
Each response has a range (healthy to unhealthy) look where you fit on that range for each:
Fight: are you assertive or do you try to be aggressive and intimidating ?
Flight: are efficient or just being busy?
Freeze: do you like quiet time and reflection or are you zoning out?
Fawn: are you helpful and fair or are you serving others to gain favour and just need to be needed?
Remember one type is not better than another. When they are dysfunctional they are all based on abandonment and shame. For instance the fight response is just as insecure and scared as the fawn response. Appearances are deceptive.
You can also find out your dominant response by taking a self-assessment quiz online or, especially of you have severe trauma, consulting a mental health professional.
You Can Heal From Unhealthy 4Fs Trauma Responses
However you respond to trauma, remember that you are not alone and that you can heal and grow from your experiences. There are many resources and strategies available to help you cope with trauma and to develop healthier and more adaptive responses.
Some of these include:
Seeking professional help from a therapist or counsellor who specializes in trauma
Joining a support group or a community of survivors who share your experiences
Educating yourself about trauma and its effects on the brain and body
Practicing self-care and stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or journaling
Manage your emotional flashbacks.
Engaging in activities that bring you joy, meaning and fulfilment.
Silencing your inner critic. It’s not your voice, tell it to shut up. If you want to learn more about how we speak to ourselves go to this article, Life Scripts: The Hidden Patterns that Control Your life.
Building positive and supportive relationships with people who respect and care for you
Setting boundaries and limits with people who are toxic, abusive or narcissistic.
Expressing your emotions and needs. To develop your emotions have a look at : The Four Branches of Emotional Intelligence.
Questioning negative or distorted beliefs about yourself, others or the world
Developing a sense of purpose and direction in your life
4Fs Trauma Conclusion
Understanding the 4fs trauma responses is the first and vital step in going beyond them and healing.
Whether you are a person who has fight, flight, freeze or fawn dominant trauma response you most likely learned them as a coping mechanism in childhood after developing complex ptsd. They are not you.
After understanding the 4fs the next step is to identify which one you are. Then from there you can start to go beyond them.
Remember, if you suffered severe trauma seek professional help.
keep in mind it’s the overactive trauma responses that become problematic. When we are healthy these responses are our natural defence and protection mechanisms.
You are not defined by your trauma or your response to it and are a whole and unique person with many qualities and abilities. You have a right to heal.
It will take patience and courage, however on the other side of the hard work you will find an ease with yourself and others you did not know was possible.
Take the relationship attachment style quiz.