Childhood Trauma and the 6 Ways We Cope

It should go without saying that children are people too. Of course they are. So when a person is violated by means of power, coercion, or while under duress, they experience rage like any other because their rights and their boundaries have been infringed upon. This fact continues to be overlooked (or ignored) by those who insist on sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Nevertheless, children lack the aforementioned verbal skills required to articulate such violation. And practically speaking, a child is small, weak, and quite literally dependent on his abusive caregiver’s resources (e.g., love, attention, food, shelter) for survival. It thus makes sense for him to mute the objections he is capable of uttering when his rights are violated (e.g., crying, raging, outbursts of physical violence) to ensure his ongoing needs are met. This leads to a tragic and insane learned helplessness, and rather than rage fruitlessly, the child learns to adapt to his abusive family system.

Children are extremely resourceful, and so adaption takes many unique forms. But research (and theory, to pay Freud his dues) has for some time pointed to clusters of adaptive processes that children engage in when their caregivers are neglectful, abusive, or both.

Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, Fuck, Feed: The six childhood responses to developmental trauma
For children to survive the trauma of being emotionally, psychologically, sexually or spiritually abused by their caregivers, they develop specific coping mechanisms Here’s my take on what these mechanisms are. It’s worth mentioning here that I have a BA in psychology. Funnily enough, though, I learned most of what I am about to discuss in this article not through studying undergrad textbooks, but through my own personal experience of and consequent research on childhood trauma.

The Fight Type. Fight types don’t hold back their rage, but nor do they learn to control it in adulthood. Prone to outbursts and tantrums, people with this coping style learned early that, in order to have their needs met they had to become hostile, or go without. Rage is learned through modeling, and can lead to aggressive and anti-social tendencies without appropriate figures to re-model such behaviour. Domestic violence, physical, verbal and sexual assault, as well as more extreme acts of violence like murder are common means of acting out that Fight types engage in. But often the fight type find socially acceptable ways to use and abuse power, and may work they way to positions of authority in Government or in corporate life (e.g., the ‘charming psychopath’) These forms of acting out are used as a means of controlling their circumstances and other people to establish an internal sense of equilibrium, usually when they experience threat.

The Flight Type. Though it could be said that all adults who develop one or more of the six coping styles as a means of escaping the pain of trauma, Flight types are the escapists who’ve honed the skill of numbing out to a T. They run from life’s problems and from the feelings that accompany them. They numb pain through alcohol or drugs, or develop soloist hobbies that allow them to isolate from people and community – the perceived sources of threat – often in socially or culturally acceptable ways (e.g. online gaming, various IT professions). One way that Fight types escape is through fantasy. This can take the form of dissociation (i.e., numbing, zoning or checking out behaviours) to more severe severances from reality (e.g., through the experience of visual and auditory hallucinations, obscure beliefs about self and others, and paranoia). To the very sick Flight type, such breaks from reality act as very powerful distraction from the experience of emotions in the present moment. Arguably, many people diagnosed with schizophrenia or various other psychiatric illnesses have developed exceptional flight behaviours to avoid life’s inevitable stressors. When I think of Flight types, I think of Blanche Dubois from A Streetcar Named Desire.

The Freeze Type. Freeze types do exactly that: they freeze in the presence of perceived threat, and suffer the consequences dearly. Those in this category seem to typify the premise of researchers like Alice Miller and Bessel Van der Kolk aptly. That is, that trauma remains frozen in the body until it is released through a safe and therapeutic re-experiencing of it. Freeze types especially are prone to re-enact the abuse they originally suffered in childhood by choosing partners or lovers similar to their abusive caregivers. This is known as repetition compulsion, which is the repeated attempt a trauma victim makes to ‘finish the feeling’, that is, to finally find the caregiver who will show them the love and protection they craved in childhood. Repetition compulsion explains why many women abused in childhood women continually “end up with” abusive partners in adulthood.

The Fawn Type. Fawn types develop codependent tendencies. They’re apt to unconsciously cultivate a ‘helper’ mentality in the hope that their caregiver will meet their needs, or at the very least disengage from abusive or neglectful behaviour. Unfortunately, many codependents end up being complicit in their own abuse or trauma, much like freeze types. Fawn types can be perpetrators too, by acting highly agreeable, sacrificing their own values or beliefs, and being manipulative or dishonest – all dishonest forms communication – as a way to get heir needs met or to avoid the experience of their own or another’s negative feelings. Because Fawn Types did not have their needs met in childhood, they learn to manipulate outcomes through more ‘passive’ means, such as through blackmail, ‘guilting’ or playing the ‘martyr’, rather than through honest and direct communication which, in reality, they were never taught or modeled in their formative years.

The Fuck Type. ‘Fuck’ is something of a misnomer, though it’s appropriate all the same. Children who discover sex, inappropriate touching, or masturbation as a means of dealing with their neglectful, abusive or otherwise emotionally unbearable circumstances discover the pleasure their bodies can provide during high stress situations. Having not been taught the value of experiencing and trusting their emotional experiences, adult Fuck types may develop sex, love or porn pornography addictions to soothe intense emotions. Such addictive patterns include engaging in sexually risky or perverse behaviour (like exhibitionism and voyeurism), to more extreme perpetration involving rape or child sexual abuse. Arguably, Western Culture has a collective preference for the Fuck type’s adaptiveness. This is when we give pause to the highly profitable porn industry (supply and demand, right?), the escalating sexualisation of women – and increasingly men – in popular culture and in commerce (“Sex Sells”), and the quiet yet alarming sexualisation of children. Indeed, one needn’t look far to see the droves of sports stars and religious leaders whose fall from grace has involved inappropriate sexual escapades.

The Feed Type. Feed types learn early in childhood that food is their most important need, and so seek to idolize it. Emotional neglect and abuse leaves a child feeling overwhelmed in the face of their own volatile feelings. Feed types also understandably believe that caregivers ultimately disappoint, but food won’t. Obesity, as well as other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is common in the Feed Type, as are many of the symptoms of body dysmorphia – self-loathing, shame, disgust, and a distorted view of oneself.

As you can see, people who suffer emotional, sexual, psychological, or spiritual abuse at the hands of their caregivers are prone to develop self-destructive -albeit universal -coping mechanisms in order to deal with the trauma of consistently having their needs unmet in their formative years. In a later post I will discuss what current research is demonstrating are our best hopes for breaking free from the shackles of childhood trauma. 

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Are you a Highly Sensitive Person?

the-highly-sensitive-person-s-survival-guide
“It’s OK, I guess.” – Official Book Review

I do lots of reading in my active recovery from complex post traumatic stress disorder. This morning, I noticed a book on my shelf that I hadn’t read in its entirety the first time round, titled The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide, by Ted Zeff. The book is a guide for highly sensitive people (HSPs) whose nervous systems are easily flooded by external and internal stimulation, such that daily life can become unmanageable. As a sufferer of C-PTSD, I can totally relate.

For the longest time, I couldn’t comprehend why the thought of attending a nightclub, with its subwoofers and flashing lights and mixed drinks, seemed like an endurance trial rather than a fun night out. Or why a work colleague’s perfume – while probably aromatic to others – smelled overpowering and nauseating to me. Or why, when under the glare of fluorescent lights, I sweat like a 90 year-old European man in speedos sunbaking on St Kilda Beach. The ‘What’s wrong with me?’ tune starts to play, ya know? Surely I shouldn’t be like this.

"Sweat moisturises the skin. It's science, baby."
“Sweat moisturises the skin. It’s science, baby.”

The book itself is OK – not good, not bad. So-so. I thought that a lot of the suggestions provided were intuitive. If, for instance, you are sensitive to bright lights, avoid them, or wear sunglasses. Or if you’re sensitive to loud noises, wear headphones…Or avoid them. So the advice in the book goes.

To be fair, some of the advice is useful. But looking over the pages this morning, I remember why I wasn’t impressed the first time I picked up the book. I am glad, though, that such a book exists. It comes as a relief to me and those like me who’ve always struggled with loud noises and bright lights and strong feelings. Not wrong, or bad. Just different. It’s officially a thing, being a highly sensitive person. And that’s OK.

In our “Type-A”-driven society, with deadlines, multi-tasking, making money and meeting KPIs, it’s good to sit back and reflect that it’s OK for me not to be like ‘them’ – the sensation-seekers or, as the book affectionately dubs them, the “non-HSPs”.

Indeed, in my own recovery, sensation-seeking has correlated highly with numbing out or avoiding my pain rather than just sitting with it and processing what’s happening. It’s a bit of a fine balance, as you can imagine. On the one hand, numbing out is counter-productive to recovery from C-PTSD. On the other hand, being a highly sensitive person means oftentimes I just have to avoid the overpowering stimuli to remain sane.

Recovery thus is a nuanced process that takes patience and time and intuition. But maybe you already knew that, too? If you think something is amiss as you wonder the brightly lit city streets, or feel positively frazzled by the seemingly impossible deadline your boss has given you at work, perhaps Ted Zeff’s book is for you.

And perhaps you, too, are a highly sensitive soul just trying to find your way in the this crazy-complex maze of a world. And that’s OK – don’t fret, and take courage! You’re not alone. There’s literature out there to help you make sense of it. And probably support groups, too, filled with similarly-souled individuals eager to bitch about those inconsiderate souls who breathe too loudly, or who wear Brut cologne like it’s 1937. Others may not notice these things, but as highly sensitive people, we do. And that’s alright.