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Why didn’t I fight back? The myth of fight or flight responses to trauma

Shame is a common and especially pernicious response to experiencing a traumatic event. Not only has something terrible just happened, you also might be looking to assign what your role in it was or trying to suss out how much you are to blame. In some ways this is actually a handy trick our brain plays on us to help us feel more in control of our lives and a sense of control is definitely welcomed after a trauma. The logic goes something like this:

If I am to blame for some aspect of what happened to me then that means I can prevent it from happening again.

See how alluring that is?

When I work with survivors of sexual assault I often hear as a defense for some of this self-blame, “if I didn’t like it” or “if it was that bad” why didn’t I fight them off or run away? This post is an attempt to explain that.

Full-disclosure: my title is a bit misleading. The fight and flight responses to trauma do exist! The myth is that those are the only two survival mechanisms our brains use to keep us safe. And the danger in only knowing those two responses is it makes self-blame just a little bit easier. Again let’s look at the logic:

If an event was traumatic and the way our brain responds to trauma is by either fighting or running away, then what happened to me wasn’t traumatic because I didn’t have those reactions.

Here’s where the blame can creep in – “if I’m feeling bad about it now it’s because there is something wrong with me not with what happened.”

This is why I think it’s important to share with survivors the myriad of survival mechanisms our brain subconsciously chooses from when presented with a threat. Let’s fight that shame together, shall we?

I will use a scenario of a wasp flying close to you to illustrate each.

Fight

In this response your body is pumped full of adrenaline, muscles are engaged, and you fight off the attacker.

You see the wasp whiz by your head and you immediately swat at it.

Flight

Your body is pumped full of adrenaline, muscles are engaged, and you run away.

You see the wasp and run in the opposite direction.

Freeze

Again, your body is pumped full of adrenaline, muscles are engaged, but something goes a little wrong here. It’s like your body can’t decide between fighting off the attacker or running away so you get stuck. Everything in your body wants to move but you feel completely immobile. Freezing can be thought of as an adaptive mechanism when you consider going completely still may help you when movement may tip off a threat to your location (like in the case of an active shooter).

You see the wasp and your body freezes up like a deer in headlights.

Submit

WIth this survival mechanism the body goes limp and becomes malleable so as to avoid pain. This defense can keep you safe in a situation when fighting or running might be more dangerous. You may have to endure something awful but this response may increase your odds of surviving.

Wasp comes flying towards you and your body feels like it turns to jelly. Your muscles soften and you stay still as it lands on you.

Feigned Death

Feigned death is a more extreme form of the submit response. Like a mouse caught in a cat’s mouth, your body goes completely limp and you essentially lose consciousness. Like a mouse and many other small mammals you also have this ability to “play dead”.

You see the wasp coming towards you and you faint.

Attachment Cry

The attachment cry response is the first survival mechanism you used to keep you safe. All humans come out of their parent at birth crying. This creates a response in the parent to nurture and keep the baby safe. It is quite literally a cry for help.

The wasp darts by your face and you scream to the nearest person, “Help! There’s a wasp!”

Dissociate

Dissociation can actually occur with most of these responses rather than being a discrete category of trauma response. I add it here because I think it’s important to note while the responses above are meant to keep us physically safe, dissociation can help us stay emotionally safe.

There are many different forms of dissociation (stay tuned for my post on this) but essentially it’s helpful to think of dissociation as a way of disconnecting our mind from our physical body. It can create a sense of floating above yourself or “being here but not being here”. So perhaps your body goes into submit or a freeze mode but your mind is able to escape. Your body is also able to feel less pain when you are in a dissociative state.

You see the wasp and have an out of body experience. It feels like you are watching yourself get stung by the wasp from afar but you don’t really feel the sting until later, after the wasp has already flown away.

Why did I choose the response I chose?

Short answer: you, as in conscious you, didn’t!

None of these responses to trauma are conscious decisions. When our brain determines there is an overwhelming threat, our rational, “thinking” parts of the brain go offline, and our parts responsible for basic survival go into overdrive.

My hope for you is if you find yourself ruminating about what you “could have/should have done,” you can also find a voice inside to say, “my body did what it did to survive.” You can no more judge yourself for how you responded in the face of threat than you can judge yourself for breathing.

If you are a victim or survivor of trauma please feel free to contact me at [email protected] or counselinginboston.com to learn more about treatment options and resources in your area.