The Flop Trauma Response
With the flop response, a person may become physically or mentally unresponsive in order to protect themself from a traumatic event.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
April 18, 2023
Table of Contents
Trauma is an emotional response to a disturbing or distressing event. Trauma influences our emotions, can cause physical problems, and has even been scientifically proven to alter our brains. There are several well-documented responses to trauma, but here we’ll review a lesser-discussed reaction called flop trauma response.
What is the flop trauma response?
The flop trauma response is when our body shuts down as a coping mechanism for dealing with distress. With flop trauma response, a person becomes physically or mentally unresponsive — sort of similar to how an animal will play dead when they feel threatened. Some people become so overwhelmed with fear that they faint or physically collapse, while others will black out or lose consciousness.
Flop response may be associated with the following behaviors and feelings:
- Appearing disengaged
- Expressing limited emotion
- Missing or skipping class, work, or social engagements
What causes the flop trauma response?
People’s bodies respond to traumatic events in different ways. When we’re faced with a perceived threat, it affects the amygdala — the part of our brain that’s linked to fear and emotions. When the amygdala senses a threat, it signals to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which then triggers trauma responses such as the flop trauma response. Other trauma responses include fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
You may find yourself thinking that the flop response wouldn’t be your first choice for reacting to trauma, but it’s important to remember that the way your body processes trauma isn’t actually a choice. Plus, flopping has its own purpose — just like the other responses to threats.
Flopping is thought to help protect people from trauma in the following ways:
Flopping potentially reduces the mental impact of the circumstances.
Dissociation is the process of disconnecting from yourself and the world around you. Dissociation can last anywhere from hours to days to weeks and is often seen in trauma survivors as a way to prevent or reduce emotional pain. If you dissociate or blackout during a traumatic event, you might feel more mentally disconnected from the circumstances.
Flopping can cause a physical disconnect.
Similar to mentally shutting down, flopping can also cause a person to become physically unresponsive by fainting or passing out. A decreased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as flaccid muscles, are physical components of the flop reaction. By disconnecting from the world around you, a person is less likely to experience the trauma directly.
Flopping may prevent additional assault.
Flop and freeze are two defense mechanisms often observed in animals. The idea is that by remaining very still (whether it’s voluntary or not), the person causing the trauma may lose interest.
What is trauma?
What are the different types of trauma responses?
What is the flop trauma response?
Why do people “flop”?
How do you support someone who’s survived trauma?
“Trauma” refers to an emotional response to a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, often characterized by feelings of fear, helplessness, and loss of control.
Fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop are the major trauma responses. These responses serve as a defense mechanism to protect oneself during and after the trauma. It’s important to recognize that trauma responses can be complex and multifaceted, and may differ depending on the individual and the nature of the traumatic event.
The flop trauma response is when the body shuts down as a coping mechanism for dealing with distress. With flop trauma response, a person becomes physically or mentally unresponsive — sort of similar to how an animal will play dead when they feel threatened.
Flopping potentially reduces the mental and/or physical impact of trauma. If you dissociate or blackout during a traumatic event, you might feel more mentally disconnected from the circumstances. Flopping may also prevent additional assault. By remaining very still (whether it’s voluntary or not), the person causing the trauma may lose interest.
Listen without judgment, validate their feelings and experiences, encourage them to seek professional help if needed, and be patient and understanding as they navigate their healing process.
Causes of trauma in young adults and teens
Before we review how to heal from trauma, it’s important to understand what can cause this extreme distress in the first place. A traumatic event is anything that evokes a strong emotional response and impairs a person’s ability to cope.
For teens and young adults, potentially triggering events include:
- Psychological or physical abuse
- Sexual assault or sexual violence
- Childhood trauma
- Intergenerational trauma (years of consistent and persistent trauma within families across generations)
- Serious accidents, like a plane or car crash
- Witnessing or experiencing intimate partner violence
- Losing a loved one, especially due to suicide
- Community violence, such as school shootings
How can you recover from trauma and the flop response?
The flop response can occur with both acute and complex trauma. Acute trauma is typically the result of a singular, one-time event. It can cause severe distress and potentially lead to trauma-related mental health conditions such as post traumatic stress disorder or acute stress disorder. With complex trauma, a person experiences repeated or continuous trauma over time. Complex trauma can also lead to serious mental health consequences.
Not everyone who experiences a stressful incident will develop trauma, and not everyone who has trauma will develop a mental health condition. However, it can happen when teens and young adults don’t have access to the right resources and support. One of the best ways to better understand your trauma response and heal from the pain and distress is to participate in talk therapy.
It’s best to build your treatment approach with a mental health provider, but below are several effective treatment options for healing from trauma:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Exposure therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)
How can Charlie Health help with trauma?
Sometimes teens and young adults feel embarrassed or overwhelmed by their mental health struggles, especially when they don’t fully understand them yet. That’s why we’re here to let you know that there’s no shame in seeking help. Whether you’re exploring treatment options for the first time or searching for extra support to help you manage trauma, Charlie Health can help you learn coping skills in a safe, supportive space.
Charlie Health’s intensive outpatient treatment programs provide a high-quality, comprehensive treatment solution that includes supported groups, family therapy, and individual therapy. Our compassionate, experienced clinicians are here to listen to your needs, answer your questions, and help you start your healing process today.