Survival-Stress Responses: 5 Fs
Most of us are familiar with fight (1) - or - flight (2) as survival mechanisms. Did you know that other stress responses exist? Freeze (3) (think deer in the headlights) can be a stress response to what our brain and body may perceive as an inescapable threat. It is similar to fainting (4), where we may feel so overwhelmed that our body shuts down as a way of mentally escaping danger. Fawn (5) is an adaptational response where we may engage in behaviors contrary to our personal beliefs to appease perpetrators/any dangerous person in power in an attempt to prolong our survival.
Fight or Flight are responses from our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) that tell us to MOVE! Freeze or Faint are responses from our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS.) The PNS is primarily responsible for calming the release of stress hormones, but in extreme cases of trauma, immobilization and dissociation (freezing and fainting) become dysfunctional responses to real and perceived threats.
This is important to remember, especially because survivors of sexual abuse or intimate partner violence (IPV) are often the targets of victim-blaming. Survivors may be asked why they didn’t fight back or run away. “Why didn’t you yell for help?” Or “why did you stay in that abusive relationship for so long?” It is crucial to understand that physiologically people’s minds and bodies respond differently to help them survive. Even after real and perceived threats are gone, these survival mechanisms may continue for trauma survivors, impairing their mental, emotional and physical well-being as they go about their daily lives. Sometimes small stressful situations are met with the same response as large life-threatening stress. Therapy is one resource that can help survivors differentiate between the two.
Things survivors of abuse need to know: it wasn’t your fault, your body did its best to keep you safe, your body is yours and part of the healing is learning to reclaim your body, you don’t have to talk about what happened if you’re not ready, and it helps to have a safe space where you can feel seen and heard for who you are (and not what happened to you.)
You don’t have to heal alone, a trained professional can help, and resources and support networks are available.