Trauma Responses

Stressful or traumatic situations, perceived danger, and threats to one’s safety might trigger our body’s natural stress response. This built-in defense mechanism causes a biological and psychological reaction that is meant to help an individual respond to various threats. Individuals react to traumatic situations or perceived threats in a manner they view as creating the most safety. Past experiences, personality, and the type of threat affect how one’s body gets triggered and responds to a stressful or frightening situation. For short-term stressors, your stress response goes away when the threat is gone. Long-term stress or trauma can cause these stress responses to become over-activated. The four trauma responses listed below are the most common, but individuals can often react using a combination of these. Fear, trauma, and stress are responsible for triggering these responses. Understanding these responses allows us to understand an individual’s reactions and behaviors. It also provides insight as to how an individual might be coping after experiencing a traumatic event.  


A way to react to a perceived threat that prioritizes self-preservation. It induces the urge to physically or verbally react.  

  • Causes an increase in heart rate 
  • Higher blood pressure 
  • Adrenaline rush  
  • Hypervigilance  
  • Anger  

Unhealthy trauma response:  

  • Bullying 
  • Controlling tendencies 
  • Conduct disorders 
  • Demanding perfection  
  • Narcissistic tendencies  

Healthy trauma response:  

  • Establishing boundaries  
  • Courage  
  • Strong leader 
  • Ability to protect  
  • Assertive  


The urge to run away from a threat. When this response is activated, individuals often find a way to distance themselves from the current danger. It becomes harmful when individuals are constantly in this response as it affects their ability to confront the perceived danger.  

  • Having trouble staying still and moving rapidly  
  • Feeling trapped and confined  
  • Panic attacks 

Unhealthy trauma response:  

  • Obsessive or compulsive tendencies  
  • A constant need to be busy  
  • Panic and fear 
  • Addictive tendencies (E.g. workaholic)  

Healthy trauma response:  

  • Disengage from harmful conversations  
  • Ability to leave unhealthy relationships  
  • Properly assess danger and remove it from those situations  


One’s body shuts down as a way of avoiding a threat. This response is common when the mind perceives other methods as unsuccessful.  

  • Decreased heart rate 
  • Dissociation, or feeling detached from self and environment 
  • Numbness in body 
  • Immobility 
  • Holding breath 
  • Feeling emotionally numb or confused 
  • Having trouble speaking or becoming non-verbal 
  • Not being able to take action or make a decision 
  • Lacking focus or having trouble concentrating 

People who have experienced interpersonal violence commonly report experiencing this trauma response during a stressor.   

Unhealthy trauma response:  

  • Dissociation  
  • Isolation 
  • Constantly zoning out  
  • Brain fog  
  • Difficulty making decisions or taking action  
  • Fear of new things  

Healthy trauma response:  

  • Mindfulness 
  • Awareness 
  • Presence in the moment  


It feels safer to be submissive. The individual appears agreeable because they view this as the safest act. Similar to the freeze response, “fawning” causes someone to prioritize pleasing and appeasing the needs of someone else over their well-being to neutralize the threat. This trauma response can pose a lot of challenges and hinder personal growth and well-being. Over time, it can lead to self-neglect, the suppression of one’s authentic needs, emotional exhaustion, codependency, and a loss of personal agency. This response is common in abusive relationships.  

Coping with Trauma  

Trauma can become debilitating and affect an individual’s well-being. Therefore, having coping mechanisms is essential. Below are tips for unwinding and coping after one of these responses has been triggered: 

  • Engage in healthy practices such as exercising and movement. 
  • Talk to someone you trust. 
  • Reduce your caffeine and alcohol levels. 
  • Engage in hobbies that bring you joy. 
  • Practice journaling.  
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques, etc. 
  • Seek help from a professional. In some instances, seeking professional mental health support is essential. Contacting a medical professional is beneficial when individuals feel like they are stuck in a stress response even when the stressor is not present.  

For mental health assistance please contact:

 Mental Health Partners

Safe Shelter of St. Vrain Valley

Brain Injury Alliance Colorado

Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center