Ep #31 Navigate Stress with Ease: Mastering the Four F’s of Trauma

by | May 30, 2024 | Core Centering, Organizational Culture, SCA Podcast, Stress Relief

The Somatic Coaching Academy Podcast

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Transcript

Ani
Hi, and welcome to the Somatic Coaching Academy podcast. Hey there, Brian.

Brian
Hi, Ani.

Ani
I’m really excited to talk about a topic that a lot of people ask us about. There’s actually so much information about nowadays, but I think at the Somatic Coaching Academy, we make it really, really practical and accessible. Would you tell us what our topic is today?

Brian
Ani, today we’re going to be talking about those effing trauma responses.

Ani
No need to swear, Brian, but it does feel like that sometimes, doesn’t it? It sure does. Effing? Usually, you are not the person to have the expletives. Usually, I have the sailor mouth.

Brian
I’m not swearing at all. These are four Fs. We have the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses.

Ani
Got you. F-ing.

Brian
It’s interesting that your mind went there.

Ani
Well, since this isn’t a session for me today, I’m really excited to talk to you about the four Fs. The four Fs. I’m glad that we do four because not everybody does 4. But I think that the fight, flight, and freeze are ones that we hear very often. Fawn, we hear about sometimes. I’m really excited to be introducing that. And I think from a physiological standpoint, it really does round out our understanding of trauma responses, which also we can talk about the trauma responses in terms of resistance types.

Brian
Yes. So this is a pretty fascinating topic, Ani, that I’m so glad we’re chatting about, because as we mentioned, these four Fs, they are trauma responses. So when a human being is traumatized, they will typically have one of those four or a combination of those four responses. These four responses, I think it’s really fascinating about them, is they’re a part of our wiring, a part of our nervous system wiring, because if you look at animals, they basically have the same responses. So animals, when they’re threatened, they’ll either go into fight or flight first, and they’ll go into fight when they perceive that they are bigger than the threat. They’ll go into flight when they perceive they are smaller than the threat. Same thing actually happens for humans. We don’t talk about that a lot, but it’s really interesting. Then if that fight or flight doesn’t work, They go into freeze, and fawns go into the fawning response, where they actually sit still, and you might think that’s a freeze response- And look cute. And look cute. But it’s actually interesting. I was hiking one day and I came around a corner and there was a fawn sitting right in the middle of the trail, and the mama deer was close by and she bolted to try to get my attention to go after her.

Brian
I had to actually get off the trail to walk around the fawn, but the fawn was very still, actually watching me. It was pretty interesting.

Ani
You’re very punny sometimes. I thought you were making a pun about the fawn, does the fawn response?

Brian
No, I actually had an experience with a fawn to do that. Anyway, so these are four trauma responses that are pre-wired into our nervous system.

Ani
So the reason that that’s important is because, like you were saying, it is important that we have ways to deal with threat. The problem is that nowadays we don’t have tigers and things like that jumping out from the woods at us most of the time. A lot of the threats that we have nowadays are perceived threats. And so I think it’s always important to remember that our nervous systems work because so often, as we’ve mentioned in other episodes, think that there’s something wrong with us. It’s a good thing that we have these trauma responses. It’s a good thing that our nervous systems work like this. The problem becomes when they’re working with things that we perceive as threat, that we don’t have to perceive as a threat.

Brian
Yeah, for sure. And the way that they work, too, is remember, they’re wired into all mammals. And the thing that makes humans different than other mammals, of course, is our neocortex, which we’re so proud of. We are so proud. We’re so proud of our neocortex. It allows us to build things and plan and all these things. Such a nice neocortex, Brian. But here’s the thing. When we’re experiencing these trauma responses, our neocortex becomes really incapacitated because our lower brain centers take over in order to help us survive the experience. So even as these enlightened humans that we are, when we’re experiencing those responses, our prefrontal cortex just isn’t actually working very well at all. And what I think is interesting, too, is, so imagine When our prefrontal cortex goes offline, we act just like animals that are threatened. We act the same way. What I think is even more frightening, though, is what if those lower animal instincts take over our prefrontal cortex?

Ani
Why?

Brian
We might actually use our prefrontal cortex then to harm each other consciously.

Ani
We do that sometimes.

Brian
Build bigger bombs, build bigger… We actually start planning for it then. We’re actually using the biggest part of our brain to injure one another in more and powerful way. That’s so sad. Isn’t it sad? Yeah. But that’s a great example of the fight-flight fawn freeze response. It’s probably more of the fight-flight response taking over the neocortex such that now the subconscious is telling the conscious mind how to do things to protect itself on even more elaborate ways. And that’s what we do as humans. Whole other side topic. But I wanted to just put it in there because that’s the extent and the power of these responses. That’s how powerful these responses are actually change the world in a lot of ways. Because the way that our leaders and ourselves make decisions are a lot of times based in these responses. And they don’t even know a lot. They don’t even realize that’s what’s happening.

Ani
It’s such an important conversation to have so that we can, nothing changes without awareness, become aware when we are having these responses because they don’t just happen big. Sometimes they’re big, and sometimes they’re subtle.

Brian
Exactly. That’s so important. There’s a spectrum here. There’s a spectrum of all of these to fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. They’re all on a spectrum. You could have them show up very little or very big. The big is a clinical problem, a clinical, psychological, diagnosable issue. The subtle happens in little tiny ways to throw us just a little off track. One of the ways that we’ve started working with these from a coaching perspective, because we both have worked with people with significant trauma coming from our therapeutic backgrounds and seeing what it looks like in big ways for people. So we’re like, Okay, we got that. But the other thing we noticed is when we’re working with people who want to create change in their lives, whatever that change is, they want to increase their income, they want to have better relationships, they want to buy a new house, they want to do whatever. In order to get that change, they have to change something internally. They have to change some type of subconscious program or some type of identity construct. Something’s got to change in order to get a different result. That’s what these trauma responses actually do, though.

Brian
They help the nervous system to adapt to trauma, aka rapid change. That’s what trauma really is. There’s a rapid change going on that the nervous system deems this threatening, so you have one of those responses.

Ani
Well, our nervous systems aren’t designed to change like that is the thing. Correct. Our nervous systems, and it’s a good thing, our nervous systems are designed to help us keep going the way we’ve been going. So we learn new things that get absorbed into our nervous system, that get integrated into our nervous system. And then the nervous system is so efficient. It’s like, I got this. You don’t need to think about it anymore. You don’t need to spend a bunch of energy. We got it on autopilot. That’s a great thing.

Brian
Yes. And these defenses are all the wired-in defenses for change, whether the change is a rapid traumatic change or whether the change is a conscious change that you’re working on with a coach.

Ani
Yeah, we started to notice this when we were transitioning from the therapeutic work that we were doing into the coaching industry your work, because like you were saying, Brian, in the therapeutic world, we were seeing people who had these big things going on and trauma, and we were doing healing work. And then we got into the coaching sphere, and people were going, Create change and push through. And we were like, Well, wait a minute. No wonder people can’t do it. And so many people can’t create the changes that they want to make in their life. And no wonder people are scared, and we’re just telling them, push through scared. And we’re like, wow, those are actually trauma responses. Like, hang on a second. There’s a really big problem with all of this. And this conversation about the trauma responses needs to be a part of the conversation wherever there is change being made. So in the coaching industry, in the consulting industry, as teachers, as trainers, in organizations, when we want to put forward new innovations, why do so many innovations not actually change or take or move forward in organizations? I would say this conversation is a huge part of that.

Brian
Very important. So maybe we can look at each one of these and just describe them a little bit and talk about them just a little bit.

Ani
Sure. Can we start with fight? Because I think that fight- No, we can’t. Don’t fight me on You’re so not a fighter. I’m the fighter in the relationship. Fight is one I think I’d like to start with it because it’s probably one of the most easy to recognize. I think most of us can think whether it’s us or whether it’s somebody else, of somebody in your life who’s a fighter resistance. Yeah.

Brian
On the extreme side of fight, which isn’t most people, but just to give us a category, it looks like this narcissistic rage. That’s if we had somebody that was in a clinical category, we would say that’s way over there.

Ani
I like that you’re saying that because we do call people narcissists without actually having a clinical diagnosis around narcissism. Yeah, nowadays.

Brian
I don’t want to talk about it from that perspective. I’m trying to give everybody a… I like to say the bigger context, like this is the feature of it so that people can get on the map somewhere. I’m like, I understand the extreme, so now I can understand. We can describe what it looks like subtly.

Ani
My favorite movie is Inside Out with the little animated feelings in… Riley is the main character’s head. As we talk about fight, and you’re talking about this, it reminds me of anger. The anger is just like, fire coming out of his head. Yeah.

Brian
The fight, so fight resistance. Someone who typically has a fight resistant pattern, and What we find in working with our clients and our students and helping someone to move through a change process, what it will look like for people is there’ll be a lot of judgment. There’ll be a lot of… It’ll be anger, certainly. There’ll be judgment. We’ll see things like blaming.

Ani
Yeah, I’m laughing because the judgment a lot of times looks like something you did. Projection is a huge thing. If you When you think back to, again, yourself or other people in your life, you got people who, when challenged, tend to blame others or blame the situation or blame something that’s definitely fight resistant showing up.

Brian
Yeah. There’s a lot of intellectualization that happens. There’s a lot of… It’s obvious that the person has anger associated with the response, but it’s almost like all the energy gets pushed up into the head. People I actually get red faces, red heads, almost like the blood pressure starts to boil a little bit. And then there’s a lot of rationalizing, a lot of prosecuting energy. So it’s like questioning, but it’s all this prosecuting. Yeah.

Ani
And the rationalization can feel like, how could I possibly intellectualize this intellectual Ninja move that’s going on right now with me? How could I win with this rationalization that’s going on? Yeah. So that’s what the fight generally looks like.

Brian
Yeah. And what we’ve noticed, too, and you could probably speak to this, too, Ani, because you’ve already said that you tend to have a fight response. So I’m just curious. What I’ve noticed for people that tend to have a fight response is they don’t even realize they’re in that fight response?

Ani
Absolutely not. Because you really think it’s the other person, for example, or you really think that it’s this other thing going outside of you, for example. We were having massive problems with one of our contractors in our company, and I had to remember because I was getting so angry about it. I really thought it was them. Now, granted, it actually was things that they were doing, but it was also decisions that I was making or had made that were putting all of these things in play. And so remembering that when I was in the fight response allowed me to actually have some empowerment to do anything about it. But I thought I was going to tackle the threat at first just by fighting the damn thing to the ground or getting angry and even intimidating people, to be honest with you. I wasn’t doing that consciously, but unconsciously, part of me was going, if I intimidate right now, this threat will stop. They’ll fix the threat.

Brian
Yeah, that’s a great example. I have another example, too. I will admit, I tend not to go to fight as my first response. But one time- One time you did? One One time I did. One time I remember. It’s just a really good example. I was way back when, when I was having these really high, bad high blood pressure issues that were really related to how hard I was working at the time. And there was like nothing came up in the test or anything around my blood pressure, then I would have a reason to be a problem. When I was meeting with my doctor, and I said, Okay, Doc, I have nothing wrong with me. I have been all these tests, so why is my blood pressure so high? And he said, Well, we don’t know. He said, but you know, you might want to stop working so hard. My identity at the time was built around how hard I was working. When he said that, immediately I got all this tension in my body, and my thoughts immediately went to, Listen, Doc, you don’t get it. You don’t have to work as hard as I do… All these things.

Brian
And what I realized was if I could make him wrong, then I didn’t have to change.

Ani
Oh, yeah.

Brian
Because the truth was he was right, 100% right. He was 100% right. But if I could make him wrong, then I didn’t have to change. And I think that’s a big feature of that fight response.

Ani
It’s a huge feature, and it takes a lot of humility and being able to look at oneself, too. It’s one of the hardest things I do in my life, to be able to look at myself and turn the mirror around and look at my part and things, because that’s painful to do until you get good at it. Yeah. And then sometimes it’s still painful. But you know what I mean? That’s painful. But if we can make the other person or situation or circumstance or whatever wrong, then we don’t have to do that. We don’t have to face that pain. And that’s a lot of times what people are running from when they get the fight response is not wanting to feel that discomfort.

Brian
Yeah, right. All right. So you mentioned running from. So perfect segue into the flight response.

Ani
I I also have plenty of experience with it. I’m a pro at them all.

Brian
Pro at the flight response, too?

Ani
No, at all of them. At all of them? Yeah. I’m just like a Jack of all trends.

Brian
Jack of all resistance. So in an extreme form, the flight response looks like obsessive compulsive disorder thing, where you’re just in ADHD, where there’s a lot of distractability, there’s a lot of restlessness, there’s a lot of jumping from here, focused from here to here to here to here to here, a lot of distracibility. It can also really show up in an extreme form as an addiction to adrenaline. There’s a lot of adrenaline, so it can actually be addiction to substances that create more adrenaline. Sure, that makes sense. That’s the extreme side of the flight response. But how would the flight response look like if you’re working with somebody or you yourself are going through a change process? It wasn’t that extreme, what would it look like?

Ani
I think And one of the ways it shows up is that you procrastinate or find other things to do that are more important or whatever, take your attention off. So in a mild form procrastination. But I also have seen this for myself and with clients where you literally leave things or it’s like there’s the threat or the challenge. And rather than meeting it, you just leave it, which, by the way, doesn’t work because it just ends up showing up in another form or in a different outfit. But the idea at the time is to disengage. I’ll also see people disengage from their bodies, whether it’s like an associative thing or just really going into their minds. But I think that’s a subtle form of flight as well.

Brian
Yeah. So avoidance is a big part of it. Something I’ve seen is you’re working with somebody on a coaching process or coaching program They’ve identified a next step that would help them get closer to the result that they want. You both agree that that’s the next step, and you’re going to touch base on it on your next meeting, get to the next meeting, and we say, Okay, so How did that step go? They’re like, I didn’t get to it. I had this come up and that come up, and somebody else needed this, and I needed that, and I gave it up. There’s a whole list of excuses of all the other things that happened, except for the one thing we agreed on would actually move the ball down the field for the person to help them get the change that they wanted to get. Absolutely. So avoidance, chasing squirrels. It’s scrolling Facebook or Instagram or whatever your social media addiction of choices. Those are all representative of flight responses for people.

Ani
Did you want to say something else? Because I have a segue. Go ahead.

Brian
Yeah, segue on.

Ani
The cool thing, I think about flight is that it can lead to, as you continue to, let’s just say, entertain the flight response rather than changing or doing something about the flight response. It can go into freeze. So the next thing that happens on that more subtle level is all of a sudden, I’m confused. I don’t remember what the goal is. I’m just so unclear, Brian. Like, what did we talk about? I just don’t know. I don’t even know what I want. I don’t know what I think. I don’t know. The I don’t knows. The flight response when it continues or is a patterned response can really lead to at a more subtle level, the freeze showing up as confusion.

Brian
Yeah, it can slide right into that freeze response.

Ani
Really easily.

Brian
Yeah. On the extreme level, talking about the freeze response, the extreme level of freeze is dissociation. In a clinical situation, you’d see somebody really dissociate from their present experience that might It might mean they go into a fantasy state. It might mean they go into a state that is completely disconnected from the current reality that’s happening right now. As you’re talking with them and you’re listening, you’re like, Are you in a parallel universe right now? Because what they’re talking about makes no contextual sense to the universe that we’re in right now. It can also look just like freeze, too. Like someone just completely shuts down, becomes catatonic, frozen, stiff, rigid in their bodies. So again, that’s that extreme clinical side of things. How we see it show up subtly was perfect segue. Confusion is a big one that we see, just like what you’re saying.

Ani
Yeah. And that frozen, I can’t get myself to do something that I know I need or want to do. Can it happen as well? And I think about it in terms of playing dead.

Brian
Yes.

Ani
Which, by the way, when we remember that the nervous system works, then the nervous system works. That makes a lot of sense to me, especially if I tried to fight it, that didn’t work. I tried to flee it, and that didn’t work. It makes perfect sense. The next thing I do, we play dead.

Brian
Yeah. And this is actually a dorsal vagal response. So it’s part of the vagus nerve shutting the system down. Like a possum would play dead. When a possum plays dead, he’s not playing dead. He actually is dead. I mean, if you were to take his pulse, it would be very, very low. His body would be limp. The nervous system just completely shuts itself down into a shutdown. There is actually a little distinction between freeze and shutdown that we talk more about in our classes with our students to help them understand the difference between the two. What we’re talking about now, though, it’s a shutdown state. If you think about fight and flight being activated states, sympathetic nervous system, there’s a lot of energy. That energy either being used to fight or to run, where the freeze response or the shutdown is a dorsal vagal or deep, deep, deep parasympathetic state where the body shuts itself off. The brain function gets very cloudy, the confusion. You also will see lethargy. You’ll actually be able to witness in someone’s energy levels like drop down. So there’s slumping that starts to happen in someone’s body as well, where a fight or flight, there’s a lot of movement, a lot of activity.

Brian
The freeze or the shutdown response, there’s body slumping, decreased activity, numbness, apathy. Those are all subtle signs that someone has moved into a freeze response during a coaching program.

Ani
Yeah, it spent a lot of my time in my, I don’t know, say, early life, young adult, early young adult period in the freeze response subtly and not knowing it. Yeah. It Just showed up. I think the biggest signpost was the, How are you doing? I’m fine. I was just fine all the time. And this thing about the system being de-energized, I still got up and functioned. I was holding a job. I actually was holding two or three jobs a lot of the time. But my system was de-energized, and I was just fine, and I didn’t know what I wanted, and I didn’t have desires, and I didn’t have a lot of emotional range either. I was just flat-lined. Wasn’t very interesting. I’m very interesting, right?

Brian
You’re very interesting, though. Almost too interesting.

Ani
Yes. My life felt uninteresting. I remember right before my life got interesting and I met you. Was pretty interesting, but you know what I mean? I’ll take that as It’s a compliment. Yeah, I’ll take it as a compliment. My state at the time, I remember sitting on park benches or watching my young kids play and just feeling like my life was just meh, just like a flat line meh. What I didn’t know at that time is that I was actually in a chronic freeze state. If I was working with a really great coach at that time who knew about these things, they would have been able to help me identify that. I didn’t know that at the time.

Brian
When we’re taking a change process, and again, sometimes when people have this freeze tendency, it’s hard to even get them to a place where we identify an action step to take to help move the ball down the field. It’s just laborious to have that happen because there can be chronic freezes, or if you do identify a thing to do, and then the person just de-energizes and shuts down. Yeah.

Ani
One of the best ways to ways to do that is so counterintuitive, but it’s to help them to get pissed off about something, to start to move energy through the system. A really experienced masterful coach can help to use that momentum then to help them change, but not to get stuck then in that state either.

Brian
Yeah, exactly. And you do have to be a little careful with that, too, from a trauma-sensitive lens that we don’t overcharge people from the chronic freeze state too much. And again, that stuff we go a lot deeper into.

Ani
Absolutely. It’s like It’s like an actual freeze. You actually have to warm it up. So just like an ice cube. If you want the ice cube to thaw, you would add heat. So actually warming up the freeze state helps somebody to then get into a place where they can find momentum.

Brian
Yeah. There’s all kinds of great trauma-sensitive ways to do that. Okay, so let’s go over to fawn. So the fawn response, as you noted, sometimes gets talked about, sometimes doesn’t get talked about. In an extreme state, the fawn response is really a codependency, the clinical codependency, where a person is habitually letting go of their own needs in a way that is really dysfunctional for themselves, harmful to themselves, and in order for someone else’s needs to be met. Oftentimes, people who tend to have fawn responses end up with people in relationships with people with fight responses. That’s a very common pair. Because the fighter needs to be in relationship with somebody who they can victimize, and the fawn response needs to be in a relationship with somebody who will be powerful and need them then to be codependent. So again, we don’t have all the time to talk about. We could talk about this for all the time in the world for the time we have right now. So how does the fawn response look when we’re working with somebody in a coaching relationship and they have a fawn response. What does that look like?

Ani
I think I notice it in two different ways. One is through the stories they tell about their relationships and how they’re acting with other people. It can also show up in how people act with me as the coach. So people can actually fawn on me. And I usually get my antennas up a little bit. I’m like, Is that a fawn? Is that what’s happening? Because I can smell it maybe, but I’m not totally sure because it’s like, Oh, you’re so smart. Oh, that was such a great suggestion. Yeah, no, I should absolutely do that. Yeah, gosh, you always know what to do, Ani, which can stroke my ego a little bit. I can be like, Yeah, I’m a good coach or whatever. And then I’m like, Hey, hang on a second.

Brian
Yeah, exactly. That’s the beauty of that strategy is if it can make you feel really good about you, then it takes the spotlight off of them to have to change something.

Ani
Exactly. So similar, different, also hearing clients describe situations where they’re doing that with somebody else. Tell me about what it was like when you went in to your boss and asked for a raise, and then they’re like, Oh, first thing I did was telling them about what a great boss they were. I’m like, Okay, what are we dealing with here? And oftentimes, of course, with the change process, that is the story. Rather than I went in and told my boss what a great I was and asked for a raise, it’s I went in and told my boss what a great boss they were, and then somehow the story tangentializes. And hoped they would give me a raise.

Brian
Yeah, exactly.

Ani
But they don’t actually do the thing. It just throws the conversation off, and that action step isn’t followed through on.

Brian
Yeah, exactly. This shows up in business as people are like, Well, I don’t want to reach out and call that person because I don’t want to bother them. Their time is more important than my time. I don’t want to make them upset. A lot of that type of language would indicate for me that there’s a fawn response going on.

Ani
Yeah. In the professional line, just for a moment, I will often find with people who tend towards the fawning tendency, if they have a business goal or we’re talking about something professional, that the conversation then veers off into something in the personal realm because the fawning will take hold over there to prevent actually the growth from the business side. I’m saying that happens all the time, but it to me is a signal that there might be some fawn stuff that’s going on when they have business goals.

Brian
Yeah. So I think the really important summary for what we’re talking about here is that these are change resistance responses as well as they are trauma responses. So for you or the people that you’re working with, if they’re having trouble making the change that they want to make in the world, then look at, does the response to change or to not changing fall into one of these categories? Do they tend to be someone who fights when they are resistant to change? Are they someone who flights, who runs, avoids, chases squirrels? Are they someone are they someone who shuts down and freezes? Or are they someone who fawns and appeases and puts you on a pedestal and limits their own needs? So which one of those patterns? Because these are all wired into the nervous system and you’ll see them show up as resistance to change tactics.

Ani
Right. And we can either pretend that the nervous system doesn’t exist and not use trauma-sensitive approaches, but just push through bully, press harder, try, again, to pretend that there’s not a nervous system, or we can work with the nervous system, understand that the nervous system is actually working well when these things come up and start to meet a person where they’re at with trauma sensitive approaches so that we can help them to get the change that they really want. I do think it’s one of the reasons why we don’t see more people being able to transform their lives is because a lot of the ways that we have classically done that are not trauma sensitive techniques that don’t work with the nervous system. So being able to work with the nervous system actually allows more people to enjoy transformation and change.

Brian
Much agreed. So when you’re ready to learn specifically how to help people work with, navigate through these responses, come on over, check out our programs, the Somatic Coaching Academy for the next flight of our certification. Flight? Flight, yeah.

Ani
We’ll see you on the next episode. Bye-bye.

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