If you ask the average person to explain the fight, flight, freeze response, most will know that this is the body’s automatic response to a threat or stressful situation. Many will also easily describe the difference between the responses. It is well understood that the human stress response is adaptive and effective at protecting us from threats, activating immediately without waiting for our conscious thought to catch up. It helps us survive and maintain both physical and mental well-being. However, it is also well documented that the chronic activation of this stress response does just the opposite, posing a significant threat to our physical and mental well-being.
Less commonly understood but not infrequently experienced is the fawn response, which refers to the consistent dismissal of one’s own needs to appease those around them. In terms of survival, it’s harder to imagine that complimenting and catering to the wild animal chasing you will help you survive. However, in an unpredictable or volatile home environment, or even in a loving home where toxic stress and pressures impact social connection with caretakers, fawn can be an adaptive way to get one’s needs met. As this adaptation is strengthened by its effectiveness, the body and brain begin to employ this strategy routinely, even when a threat is not present. The most common manifestations we see are people pleasing, poor boundaries, difficulty saying no, over-apologizing, and aligning preferences with others.
Patterns of fight, flight and freeze are easily recognizable to the person experiencing them and to those around them, which can be a helpful indication that there’s a chronic stressor that needs to be addressed. Those who tend towards a fawn response are often acutely aware of these tendencies, but those around them may not always recognize the behaviors as a manifestation of the stress response. This can make addressing fawn responses even more challenging because the responses are so often glorified and valued by others. Society tends to want to intervene when someone’s stress response manifests in aggression or avoidance, not so much when it manifests as “niceness.” Let me be clear here, the fawn response is not the same as demonstrating kindness, compassion, or even selflessness at times. The differentiation is that when one
chooses kindness and compassion it is not rooted in the pursuit of safety and is not the result of a stress response activation.
The dangers of fawn responses include increased risk of being taken advantage of, unsatisfying relationships, depression, anxiety, and a loss of your authentic self. Those alone are reasons to take some action to address this, but I recently came across additional information that heightens the urgency. In his book, “The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture,” Dr. Gabor Maté highlights scientific research that links emotional suppression and avoidance of conflict with increased incidence of breast cancer and ALS. This adds to the research on the linkage between toxic stress and adverse health outcomes, suggesting that the role of the stress response and its overactivation is a significant contributing factor.
The reason I find this so important for us to understand is that those who have developed fawn-like behavior can become inured to the abandonment of their own needs, and because others aren’t likely to recognize this problem or ask them to stop being so “nice,” it may go unaddressed. Understanding the risks to one’s health might be the necessary impetus to taking action to restore connection to one’s authentic self. The good news is that the neural pathways to develop these new adaptive responses can be changed and strengthened so that one’s past does not become destiny. It is also an important reminder of why restoration of power, voice, and choice is so vital in a trauma-responsive approach.
Trauma doesn’t happen in a vacuum and neither does healing. While there are many ways to take action to heal from the impact of trauma, an environment that includes safe connections is a key for the other work to occur. That might include a therapist or behavioral health professional, and/or it could also include a spiritual community, mutual self-help group or a trusted friend/family member that is committed to supporting your progress. Check out the Directory on this site to learn about service providers in your area.