Taking A Deeper Look At Freeze And Fawn Responses

Are you familiar with the concept of “fight or flight?”  What about “freeze or fawn?” These terms describe defense mechanisms that are triggered when we experience intense fear, nervousness, anxiety, or perceive a nearby threat.

The survival instincts —fight, flight, freeze, and fawn— have played a critical part in the survival of our species. They’re part of our evolutionary heritage, developed over millions of years to help us respond to threats in our environment. While we owe a lot to these stress responses, they can also bring considerable discomfort and distress if not processed properly.

An Overview of The Fear Responses

nervous woman

Fight: “Fight” is when your instincts tell you that “it’s either you or them.”  You decide to confront the threat directly, usually with aggression.

Flight: “Flight” is when your instincts kick in and tell you that you must escape or avoid someone, someplace, or something. You’ll look for either emotional or physical distance from the perceived threat, which could lead to increased speed and alertness.

Freeze: “Freeze” is precisely what it sounds like. You become so fearful of a perceived threat that you cannot move. You are, in fact, “frozen with fear.” Some experts say that this kind of response is common among those who have suffered from childhood neglect, abuse, and other intense traumatic situations.

A Deep Dive Into The Fawn Response

“Fawning” is a defense mechanism that aims to bring down the guard of a potential threat by agreeing with everything they say or do. It’s seeking approval to avoid conflict. Fawning mainly involves prioritizing someone else’s needs above one’s own. The fawning response is also believed to be linked with adapting to abusive environments.

Effects from Fawning 

The fawn response may cause more mental short-term effects such as emotional exhaustion, internal issues, and a lack of trust or connection with your own body. Long-term fawn responses could lead to trouble setting boundaries and the tendency to always put others before yourself, which can lead to emotional burnout. 

“People pleasers” or those who can never say no could also be the result of an over-triggered fawn response. These people may also get taken advantage of more than they would like to admit.

A Deep Dive Into The Freeze Response 

The freeze response is similar to the faun response in that it is the body’s attempt to avoid amplifying conflict. The big difference is the physical response. A physical freezing often presents as if the person is a “deer in headlights.” It can also present as acute muteness, where the person is unable to verbalize during a confrontation.

Effects from Freezing

Since the freeze response forces you to go immobile, short-term effects often include muscle tension, fatigue, and body aches. 

The long-term effects of the freeze response can include chronic muscle tension and pain and anxiety disorders resulting from always being on alert.

Overcoming Trauma Responses

These stress responses are our allies in assessing and surviving stressful situations. However, they can become problematic if they are overly triggered. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t forget that reaching out to a mental health professional demonstrates courage and strength.

Trauma-informed therapy can be the difference between a life of people-pleasing and anxiety and a fulfilling life with healthy boundaries. A trained professional can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress responses in the moment as well as conflict resolution tactics that you can use in place of fear responses.

You don’t have to live with continuous stress and worry. If you have issues with these stress responses, you can learn how to spot and manage them.

If you would like to learn more about the fight, flight, freeze, and fawn stress responses, feel free to contact me