Understanding Fight, Flight, Freeze and the Fawn Response

Another possible response to trauma.

Posted Aug 22, 2020

Most people have some level of awareness of PTSD, particularly as it applies to people returning from the war zones in the Middle East. PTSD was also evident in other soldiers returning from battle in the past, but there was limited recognition of the changes brought about by severe trauma in these earlier wars. 

Today, research into the brain's response to trauma has created an awareness of PTSD across a wide range of life events. This includes seeing and experiencing the horrors of war, but also for first responders, victims of crime, and people exposed to single incidents of trauma or ongoing trauma throughout their life. 

The most well-known responses to trauma are the fight, flight, or freeze responses. However, there is a fourth possible response, the so-called fawn response. Flight includes running or fleeing the situation, fight is to become aggressive, and freeze is to literally become incapable of moving or making a choice. 

The fawn response involves immediately moving to try to please a person to avoid any conflict. This is often a response developed in childhood trauma, where a parent or a significant authority figure is the abuser. Children go into a fawn-like response to attempt to avoid the abuse, which may be verbal, physical, or sexual, by being a pleaser. In other words, they preemptively attempt to appease the abuser by agreeing, answering what they know the parent wants to hear, or by ignoring their personal feelings and desires and do anything and everything to prevent the abuse. 

Over time, this fawn response becomes a pattern. Individuals carry this behavior pattern into their adult relationships, including their professional and personal interactions. 

Recognizing the Fawn Response

As the fawn response is developed early in childhood, it can be difficult for an individual to recognize it is occurring. However, there are some key signs that the fawn response is in use when:

·       You look to others for how you feel in a relationship or a situation

·       It is difficult to identify your feelings, even when you are alone

·       You often feel like you have no identity

·       You are constantly trying to please the people in your life

·       At the first sign of conflict, your first instinct is to appease the angry person

·       You ignore your own beliefs, thoughts, and truths and accept those of the people around you

·       You may experience unusual emotional responses when issues do not involve people of importance in your life. This could include emotional outbursts at strangers or sudden sadness throughout the day. 

·       You feel self-anger and guilt some or most of the time

·       Saying no to those around you is a challenge

·       You are overwhelmed at times but take on more if asked

·       You lack boundaries and are often taken advantage of in relationships

·       You are uncomfortable or threatened when asked to give an opinion

The fawn response is often not discussed in PTSD as it may be seen as simply a part of the personality of the individual. However, it goes beyond a collaborative and non-competitive personality. 

Individuals with the fawn response pattern can be targeted by those who are narcissistic or those with a desire to control and manipulate people around them. In these situations, the fawn response creates a dangerous cycle with the narcissist demanding more and more and the individual with PTSD feeling greater levels of anger, guilt, and self-reproach for giving their emotional and physical all to the partner. 

Getting Help 

Trauma, including PTSD, can be treated effectively through therapeutic interventions. Working closely with a therapist trained in the treatment of PTSD is essential to understand the cause of the trauma and to process the past to be able to move forward. 

Through therapy, individuals who use this type of response as their default way to deal with others can learn effective strategies to create and maintain boundaries, to talk about their feelings and emotions, and to learn how to interact with others without feeling the need to constantly please.