People think of the flight part of the fight or flight trauma response as an escape from a dangerous situation. This is accurate but there is more to it. It can also play a part in how we interact with situations and people in our day to day lives.
In this blog post you will learn what the flight response is and how it takes form in your life, beyond immediate danger. You will also learn what you can do to heal from it when it becomes dysfunctional.
The Flight Trauma Response at a Glance
If you have you ever felt the urge to run away from a threatening situation, then you understand this response in its fundamental form.
However, if you’ve avoided a confrontation with someone, or left a party early because you felt uncomfortable. Then you have also experienced the flight response.
Or maybe you’ve kept yourself busy with work, hobbies or distractions to avoid dealing with your emotions. If so, that is also the flight trauma response manifesting in your life.
What is Trauma and How Does it Affect Us?
Trauma is any event or situation that overwhelms our ability to cope. It causes us to feel helpless, hopeless or terrified. It can be caused by a single event, such as an accident, a natural disaster or an assault.
Trauma can also be caused by repeated or prolonged exposure to stressors, such as abuse, neglect or violence. This type of trauma is known as complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD), as their are many causes and we cannot pin point the trauma to one particular even.
An acute stress response will last a short time after the event then it will go away. This is a natural reaction, however when the stress response become chronic it negatively affects our daily life.
Trauma affects Us in Many Ways, Both Physically and Psychologically.
When we encounter a traumatic situation, our brain and body via the sympathetic nervous system activates the stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response.
This is a natural and adaptive mechanism that helps us survive by preparing us to either fight or flee from the danger or perceived threat.
When the stress response system is activated, our sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline and cortisol that trigger changes in our body.
Our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate increase. Our pupils dilate, our muscles tense up and our digestion slows down. These changes help us mobilize energy and resources to deal with the threat. The changes are regulated by our autonomic nervous system and are healthy stress responses.
However, sometimes the stress response system can become overactive or dysregulated due to trauma. This means that we may experience the stress response even when there is no real danger or a threat present.
These can cause us experience mental and physical health problems.
We will have difficulty turning off the stress response after the danger has passed. This can lead to chronic stress and various mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression and insomnia. As well as physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues and immune system dysfunction.
How the Flight Trauma Response Manifests in Your Life
The flight trauma response is one of the ways that we cope with trauma and stress. It involves a release of stress hormones that signal us to flee from the danger.
Instead of staying in a dangerous situation, this response causes us to literally or metaphorically run away.
The flight trauma response can manifest in different ways depending on the context and the person. Some examples of flight behaviors are:
Leaving a place or a situation that makes us feel uncomfortable or unsafe
Avoiding people or situations that trigger negative emotions or memories
Isolating ourselves from others or withdrawing from social interactions
Keeping ourselves busy with work, hobbies or distractions to avoid facing our problems or feelings
Using substances such as alcohol, drugs or food to numb ourselves or escape from reality
Engaging in compulsive behaviors such as shopping, gambling or sex to get a temporary relief from stress
The flight response can be helpful in some situations where there is an actual threat or danger that we need to escape from. If we are being chased by a wild animal or an attacker, running away may be the best option to survive.
However, the flight trauma response can also be harmful in some situations where there is no real danger or threat present.
For example, if we avoid talking to our partner about an issue that is bothering us or if we isolate ourselves from our friends because we feel anxious or depressed.
In these cases, fleeing from the situation may only worsen our problems and prevent us from finding solutions or support.
How Can We Cope with the Flight Trauma Response?
If you find yourself experiencing the flight trauma response frequently or excessively, here are some tips that may help you cope:
Recognize Your Triggers:
The first step is to identify what situations or people trigger your flight response. By becoming aware of your triggers you can prepare yourself and reduce their impact on your stress level.
To Manage the Flight Trauma Response Practice Relaxation Techniques:
When you feel the urge to flee from a situation try to calm yourself down by using relaxation techniques. There are many methods such as deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation or mindfulness.
These techniques can help you activate the relaxation response. which is the opposite of the stress response. The relaxation response can help you lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate and restore your balance.
Challenge Your Thoughts:
Sometimes our flight response is driven by irrational or negative thoughts that make us perceive a situation as more threatening than it really is. For example, believing if you get rejected when you ask someone out you will never get over it.
These thoughts can increase your anxiety and make you want to avoid the situation. To cope with these thoughts you can use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. CBT is used replace these thoughts with more realistic and positive ones.
Ask yourself questions such as…
Is there evidence for or against this thought?
What is the worst that could happen and how likely is it?
Is there another way of looking at this situation?
To Reduce the Flight Response Face Your Fears:
One of the most effective ways to overcome the flight response is to gradually expose yourself to the situations or people that trigger it. This is called exposure therapy and it can help you desensitize yourself to the stimuli that cause you stress and anxiety.
Exposure therapy involves creating a hierarchy of situations that range from least to most anxiety provoking. Then confronting them one by one, starting from the easiest one.
For instance, if you have a fear of public speaking, you can start by practicing in front of a mirror, then in front of a friend. Once you are comfortable then progress to a small group, and so on, until you feel comfortable speaking in front of a large audience.
Exposure therapy can help you learn that the situation is not as dangerous as you thought and you can cope with it.
Understand Yourself and Others
Often when we have experienced abuse or a traumatic event our ability to understand our own emotions and read other people gets compromised.
It’s , therefore, important that we develop our emotional intelligence. This is our ability to be self aware, read other people, understand social cues and develop self control.
Seek Support for the Flight Trauma Response:
Sometimes coping with the flight response can be challenging and overwhelming, especially if you have experienced severe trauma or abuse in the past.
In these cases, it may be helpful to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor who can guide you through the process of healing and recovery.
You can also reach out to your family, friends, or other helpful people who can offer you emotional support and encouragement.
Manage Your Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks are sudden attacks of feeling hopeless and small. They take us back to a time when we were vulnerable.
The problem is, we cannot tell what the particular cause of the flashback is. When someone has PTSD, the cause of the trauma is clear. It’s also clear what triggers the person to experience the trauma again.
With complex trauma because there were many causes over time, the trigger is never obvious. In order to heal from a chronic flight response we must manage emotional flashbacks by understanding them, learning to catch them when they happen and then changing your state.
This is an ongoing process, that will have many ups and downs. But if you have complex PTSD you must go through this to heal.
Recognise and Diminish the Inner Critic
The inner critic is the voice in our head that tells us we are failures, unworthy, unlovable or anything else that demeans us.
We confuse it as our own voice, when actually it is the voice of our caregivers and of other significant people as we were growing up.
We internalised their remarks, then those remarks started playing back to us like a recording. These internal scripts then influence how we see the world and our decisions.
You must reduce the inner critic by seeing that it is not your voice, telling it shut up and reminding yourself of your success and good qualities.
This is also an on going process, if you need to, see a mental health professional who will help you through the healing.
The good news it is not your voice, it can be silenced and replaced with an positive life affirming voice.
The Flight Trauma Response and the 4F’s Trauma Model
The 4Fs trauma model is a framework for understanding and treating complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). It was developed by Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and survivor of childhood abuse.
The model describes four basic defensive structures that people develop out of their instinctive need to survive.
The four trauma responses are:
Fight: The fight trauma response involves protecting oneself from threat through conflict, aggression or control. People who tend towards the fight response may have difficulties with anger management, boundaries and empathy.
Flight: This response involves protecting oneself from threat through escape, avoidance, or distraction. People who tend towards the flight response may have difficulties with relaxation, concentration and intimacy.
Freeze: The freeze response involves protecting oneself from threat through dissociation, numbing, or paralysis. People who tend towards the freeze response may have difficulties with memory, emotion regulation and motivation.
Fawn: This response involves protecting oneself from threat through appeasement, compliance or caretaking. People who tend towards the fawn response may have difficulties with self-esteem, assertiveness and identity.
The 4Fs trauma model suggests that people who suffer from CPTSD often over-rely on one or two of these responses as a way of coping with their trauma. This can limit their ability to access the other responses and to relax into a normal state of being.
The model also provides guidance on how to heal from CPTSD by identifying and challenging the dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors associated with each response and by developing a more balanced and flexible repertoire of coping skills.
The flight trauma response is a natural and adaptive reaction to trauma and stress that helps us survive by escaping from danger or threat.
However, sometimes the flight response can become overactive or dysregulated due to trauma, causing us to avoid or flee from situations that are not really dangerous or threatening. This can have negative consequences for our health and well-being.
To cope with a unhealthy flight response that is a reaction to past trauma , we can use various strategies such as recognizing our triggers, practicing relaxation techniques, challenging our thoughts, facing our fears and seeking support.
By doing so, we can learn to manage our stress and anxiety better and improve our quality of life.
Remember, see a mental health professional if you need to, especially if you have severe trauma.
Take the attachment style quiz to understand more about how you relate.