My father’s oldest brother died this past Sunday morning, suddenly and without much warning. He was 72. It was a shock. I spent the day unable to think, moving through the world like a sleepwalker.
The death of a loved one is a trauma, regardless of how quick or drawn out it is. In talking with my mother about our reactions to trauma, and how differently my sisters react as compared to my parents, and how different their reactions are to each other, led me to think about the idea of “trauma languages”.
The Love Languages
In 1992, Dr. Gary Chapman published a book entitled The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. The book was based on Dr. Chapman’s experience as a marriage counselor, wherein he asked couples what they wanted from their partners in order to “feel loved”. Through his research, he found that people tend to want affection to be shown in one of five ways:
- Words of affirmation
- Acts of service
- Quality time
- Physical touch
Most people have a stronger preference toward one or two methods, and these are considered the person’s “love language”.
I learned about these love languages as a high school student at church. The idea of the love language can extend beyond couples and into families, friends, and even work relationships. If you know your own love language, you can tell someone how you like to be appreciated; if you know another’s love language, you can make a point of showing them how you feel in a way they’ll certainly understand.
As a linguist, I love the idea of “languages” to explain how human beings respond to things. If there are love languages, aren’t there other languages?
While I’m by no means a psychologist, and I can’t claim to have done much research, I do understand that human beings respond to trauma differently. Could this mean that we have trauma languages, just as we have love languages?
Biologically, human beings are like most other mammals, in that we have a hormonal response that goes into action at the first sign of danger. This change is called the stress response, and we don’t have much control over it, as it’s simply part of the biological imperative to survive. In fact, one infuriating issue of being a modern human is that our brains can’t differentiate between the stressors from our early evolution (predators, natural disasters, warring neighbors) and threats that are really only in our brains now (the fear of moving to a new city, a deadline at work).
Generally, this stress response is understood to fall into two categories: fight or flight. But research has shown that there are other stress responses, found both in humans and other animals. This, to me, would outline what the “trauma languages” would be.
I should note that most of what I’ve read about the fight-or-flight response shows that it is generally supposed to be a choice between the two; a person (or animal) will assess the threat and the surrounding environment to determine which response is best suited to the issue at hand. However, I think we may all be more attuned to a single response deep down, although we may engage in the others in different situations.
For someone whose trauma language is “fight”, the very obvious response to stress would be to fight against it. This could be physical, if it’s an incoming tiger or an attack from a nearby tribe. But in the relative physical safety of a modern U.S. city, the “attack” could be mounting debt, a major deadline at work, or, yes, a death in the family. The “fight” response in this instance doesn’t necessarily have a physical outlet, and so a person might react by fighting verbally. It could also come out in a less negative-seeming way, such as a direct confrontation of the issue or planning.
Physically, the fight response may manifest in a number of ways, including a desire to punch or destroy, a tight or grinding jaw, or yelling. The hormone adrenaline is particularly important in this process.
The flight response comes into play if you feel that the stressor is too big to overcome. A person who’s more inclined toward flight as a stress response would be more concerned with saving their hide by running away than engaging in combat. This could mean avoiding a problem by ignoring it, or waiting for a solution to come from someone else.
Physically, this could manifest as anxiety, fidgeting and restlessness, or even excessive exercise. Someone whose trauma response is flight may move from one activity to the next to avoid the stress.
A relative newcomer to the stress response theory, freeze describes the response of being incapacitated and paralyzed by fear. Generally this is what happens to animals when they’re completely overwhelmed by a problem and are unable to attack it, escape it, or process it. It can be useful in lulling a predator into thinking that you’re dead so they’ll leave you alone. Of course, upcoming presentations at work don’t stop bothering us just because we’ve become paralyzed.
Physically the freeze response may manifest as numbness, coldness, or even sleepiness. A person who is undergoing the freeze response may be unable to speak.
The fawn response is even newer to the scene than the freeze response. Described by Pete Walker, a counselor in California who specializes in PTSD, this response involves people-pleasing to try and appease a stressor. A person whose trauma language is fawning will accommodate the needs of other people to the point of completely ignoring their own.
Physically, this could manifest as being unable to say how you truly feel, flattering other people, or feeling taken advantage of. It’s clearly a more human-based response, although I could imagine chimpanzees or even dogs trying to please someone above them in the social hierarchy in an attempt to relieve stress.
Where you get your trauma language
According to Walker, your stress response is determined in childhood as part of attachment, which is how we learn to bond in relationships for life based on our relationship with our parents. This means that how you learn to cope with stress can have a lot to do with the type of trauma you experience as a child. Trauma can take many forms, although we most often focus on the capital-T Traumas like violence, neglect, sexual abuse, or being the child of alcoholic or drug-addicted parents. These obviously major events in a child’s life have lasting impacts and can clearly form a lifelong trauma response.
However, even small traumas like our first day of school without our parents or encountering a bully on the playground just once can form our trauma responses. The fact is, everyone has a trauma language; knowing what it is can help us separate the hormones and automatic responses from our freewill to help us determine a health approach to stress and trauma.
My mother and I both have a “freeze” response to trauma. When I’m faced with death or major stress, my brain shuts down entirely. I often just go to sleep. Understanding this helps me take care of myself and give myself space, especially in the time immediately following an initial shock. I can also start to talk myself out of the coma that I fall into, and begin to deal with the situation in a rational manner.
For now, the grief over my uncle’s death has me very tired and somewhat out of it, although I couldn’t sleep very well last night. My secondary response may be flight — making myself so busy I don’t have to think about it. I’m going to be keeping an eye on myself this time around, for sure.