I’m sure most of us have heard of the fight-flight response system we have built in our bodies to deal with a traumatic, or near-death experience. This trauma response is a simple response system our bodies have designed so that we can react quickly when facing trauma to keep us safe from harm. We can fight and hope we win, or we could run away (take flight), hoping to find safety. But our brains are smart and as we are not always in a position to either fight or run away, we have developed other ways of coping with trauma. And so, our brains have adapted to provide us with two additional, less commonly known, trauma response mechanisms: freeze and fawn. Regardless of what response mechanism we use, the end goal is always the same: self-preservation.
These responses are completely normal and natural, not to mention vitally important in protecting ourselves, and not just from external or physical threats, but to protect our mental health as well. There is no right or wrong way to respond to trauma and our minds tend to select the response it feels is going to best assist us in the moment. Interestingly, we do not always consciously choose how we are going to respond or react; our adrenaline takes over and selects a reaction just as impulsively as moving our hand away from a hot stove. Remember, whatever response mechanism is selected, it is designed to protect you and there is never a better or worse way to react to something that keeps one safe.
Before I break down each of these trauma responses, I also want to make mention that sometimes, especially if one has lived through prolonged trauma, these trauma responses become more frequent and can be debilitating. This is what we call complex trauma and can feel like the trauma never truly went away. In these cases, one would repeatedly react with one or more trauma responses, even in times when there is no real threat. An example of this would be when someone is frequently defensive (fight), or if someone is unable to make decisions (freeze). There is no shame if you are experiencing these kinds of feelings, it is simply your body in protection mode keeping you safe from the severe trauma you may have experienced. Though I encourage you to please seek help, as you can unlearn these behaviours and find healthier copying mechanisms to deal with any trauma, or pain, you may have experienced.
The most obvious of all trauma responses is the “fight” response and is commonly viewed as one fighting the “enemy” or the thing (whether human or animal) trying to harm them. It’s easy to imagine one being attacked and standing up, fighting back to defend oneself. Though, fighting is not only physical, and not only used to protect one from physical harm but is also used in situations where one is protecting their psychological well-being. A simple example can be seen in an argument where the fight response would look like throwing insults or slurs, yelling; whatever we ‘must’ do to protect our inner selves, our feelings, our emotions, and even our ego.
Explosive outbursts, aggressive or angry behaviour, being demanding or using intimidation tactics to gain or perpetuate power over someone, are also examples of the fight response. But fight is not only an outward behaviour, often times one can also fight with their own inner selves, especially if a thought or idea appears to threaten one’s well-being, and one can even fight, or argue with someone in their head. Both these examples are often experienced when one is not able to fight back in person.
Another response mechanism that is easy to identify is the “flight” response, where one simply runs away from danger to find safety. An example would be if one saw a lion and simply ran away. They ran away as their minds have determined that they would most likely lose the battle if they stayed to fight, and so it quickly reacts to the best possible solution to protect themselves.
But running away is often less dramatic, and not always literal in modern day life and looks more like someone who is constantly trying to distract themselves by keeping busy. Psychologically speaking, one is fleeing from the emotional thoughts, the memories, and the painful feelings of the trauma. Substance abuse is another example of trying to avoid the problem. One is not wanting to face the situation and is doing what they deem necessary to protect themselves from harm, or to deny the hurt they already feel.
Less commonly known than the other two, is the “freeze” response, but is one of the most common responses especially in women. The freeze response is when one simply does not react, both physically and mentally, to the traumatic event. The body and mind will freeze in an attempt to shut off and shut down to keep one safe, and the brain will exhort all energy in keeping one alive rather than use this “non-essential” energy on thinking or speaking.
It is a very common response found in sexual assault, or domestic abused victims (which is why it is so common with women, as they are disproportionality affected by domestic abuse and sexual assault) because in extreme trauma, to freeze is deemed as the safest response to protect oneself. People also freeze when they have experienced trauma in the past, or have repeatedly had their boundaries, or needs dismissed. Remember, we have these responses to protect ourselves and fighting is not always the best method to prevent us from danger, nor is fleeing always an option.
But to freeze can also be found in less extreme cases, such as times when one is very upset or angry and they find themselves unable to speak, or unable to move, unable to react. This is the brains way of saying that one is “unsafe”, or at least it feels unsafe in the moment. I find myself doing this in times, for example, when being extremely angry at a superior, my will brain shut off and I am unable to respond quick enough as it is aware that reacting could place me in a worse situation or get me into further trouble. With that said, freeze is very common when there is an unbalance of power dynamics.
The least known of the of all the trauma response, but arguably the most common is “fawning”. This is when one just follows the wishes and demands of another without communicating how one truly feels or what one truly desires. Fawning is also unintentionally taught in society as something that is polite behaviour. An easy example of this is when a child does not want to give their aunt a hug but is told they must because it is polite, or good manners. So, the child obeys, and learns to adopt fawning as a response mechanism to things they don’t actually want to do.
In more extreme cases, people develop or learn this trauma response as a way of coping with the stress in their lives. People often learn to fawn when they grow up in environments where they are not heard, their needs/desires are not respected, or when there is a lot of conflict/tension in the household. And in abusive households, the victim’s natural responses to fight or flight, may be repressed and punished which then forces the victim to adopt a fawn response (or freeze) in order to best protect themselves. One does this in an attempt to ease the conflict and to deny ourselves of what we actually want/need in an attempt to make ourselves feel better, to cope better.
Unlike the other responses which are usually “in the moment” reactions of the traumatic event, fawning can be more prolonged as one is dealing with the aftermath of the trauma. That is, one can make up excuses or reasons as to why the traumatic event occurred, or just accept it as part of life. They do this as a copying method for the hurt or pain they still endure. Rape is the perfect example of this, as it is often something that one’s society or community don’t believe occurred or question the victim of the incident. So, to cope with societal pressures as well as the trauma itself, the victim will fawn, or go along with what others are telling them to feel and how to behave. People who do fawn, often struggle to express themselves, their needs, and set boundaries.
As Pete Walker (who coined the term “fawn”) so perfectly stated:
“[fawning]…seek safety by merging with the wishes, needs, and demands of others. They act as if they unconsciously believe that the price of admission to any relationship is the forfeiture of all their needs, rights, preferences and boundaries.”
Again, there is no shame, and no right or wrong response when dealing with trauma. It is a natural response mechanism designed to survive a threat, or any kind of physical and psychological harm. Every single one of us has these response mechanisms and there is a plethora of reasons why we, or our brains, choose one response over the other. These responses can be conscious, where we actively choose how we are going to react in a threat, but in most cases, our brains (or adrenaline) take over and our bodies/minds select the best reaction to protect ourselves.
For those who have experienced complex trauma, where these response mechanisms have become ingrained within, or have become too debilitating, you are not alone and it’s okay. I too struggle with fawning. But you can learn to heal, to unlearn these behaviours, and find healthier copying mechanisms as well as develop healthy boundaries with others. There is help and support out there and I encourage you to seek help if you feel you need or can benefit from it.
To leave you with a few empowering thoughts in the meantime, I want you to know that you are loved, you matter, you are worthy and deserving of feeling safe and secure, your voice matters, you are heard, and you are strong enough to heal and overcome the obstacles you may face.
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