April 15, 2020
The coronavirus is having massive impacts globally, and a lot has been written about the grief which comes with this crisis, but less has been written about the trauma impacts. When people experience fear they have one of 5 responses: fight, flight, freeze, friend, or flop. We talk about this a lot in relation to sexual violence as we often hear women say things like ‘it must be my fault, I just froze and didn’t fight him off’. Whilst it’s never the survivor’s fault they were abused (the fault can only ever lie with the perpetrator), we must also recognise that our responses to fear are also not within our control.
As a society we often talk about fight and flight – the response to fear being that we either fight someone off, or run away. It’s a trope we often see played out in horror movies and TV shows. But we don’t talk about the other 3, and it’s important to be aware when it comes to sexual violence, (and other fearful situations) that they are just as likely as fight or flight. When we freeze we get physically tense, still, and silent, in animal terms it’s the equivalent of playing dead; when we flop it’s similar to freeze, only our bodies go fully limp to avoid pain, our minds can also turn off to protect us; and when we friend, we either ask for help from a bystander, or try to placate or reason with the person who risks hurting us.
We don’t have a choice about which of these five responses kick in, it’s controlled by a part of our brain called the amygdala, and which one we go to depends on what our brain decides in a heartbeat, before we can put cognitive thought to what’s happening. In psychological theory, it’s understood as a way in which our primate ancestors could protect themselves without wasting valuable time decision making. We act first, think later. This is why survivors freeze, or flop (or do any of the other f’s), because their brain puts in place an action it deems most likely to protect them, even if our cognitive brain might have responded differently.
Coronavirus triggers that same fear response in all of us and it means people will respond in a variety of ways. That person not leaving their house? Flight. The person who seems to be angry at runners or those not keeping a 2 metre distance? Fight. Those struggling to do anything and finding themselves sat for hours doing nothing? Freeze. The person who feels like the world is a bit marshmallow right now? Flop. The person supporting everyone and trying to use science and reason? Friend.
It is easy to say that right now what’s needed is more kindness and compassion to all, it’s of course true, but perhaps what’s also needed is for all of us to be able to view this pandemic through a trauma informed lens. To understand that people are not always responding from cognitive spaces, and that the behaviours of our loved ones, friends and colleagues are exhibiting are signs of fear.
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