What are the Freeze and Fawn Responses?

April 18, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Have you ever heard of the “fight-or-flight response”? Fight and flight are both common, well-known responses to trauma and stress. They’re biological responses that we, as humans, have to confront dangerous situations. When faced with a threat, our nervous systems can react to help us fight off the threat or flee from it.

But what you might not know is that fight or flight aren’t the only two responses that humans have to stress. Experts say that there are two additional stress responses – “freeze” and “fawn” – that are just as important to understand.

Here’s what you need to know about the lesser-understood freeze and fawn responses, as well as signs that you’re in both.


What is the freeze response?

The “freeze” response to threats or danger is also sometimes called the “camouflage response.” This is what may be happening when you find that you can’t respond, in any way, to a threat. You can’t run away or fight back. You’re frozen in fear, numb, and feel like you can’t even move. The proverbial “deer in headlights” is a classic illustration of the freeze response.

How can I tell if I’m in the freeze response?

If you often feel disconnected or numb when faced with stressful situations, this may be a sign that you’re going into the freeze response[1].

Some other signs of the freeze response include:

  • Feeling like you can’t move your limbs
  • Feeling paralyzed in fear
  • Having a panic attack
  • Dissociating
  • Holding your breath
  • A deep sense of dread

The freeze response may have served our predecessors well. For example, they may have “played dead” when faced with a predator, or used the freeze response to stall for time. Some experts even say that the freeze response always comes first – we freeze, at least for a few moments, to figure out what action to take next.

However, the freeze response (just like any stress response) can come problematic in the modern world when it’s activated all the time.

At the same time, it’s important to know that freeze – just like fight and flight – is an involuntary physical response. This means that your body decides that freezing is the best way to deal with the threat without you having to consciously make this decision.

This is important to remember because many people blame themselves for freezing in response to a threat. For example, they might think, “Why didn’t I fight back?” or “Why did I just stand there like an idiot?” These types of responses were probably a reflection of being in the freeze response, and they aren’t your fault.

In addition, the freeze response often happens when fight and flight simply aren’t options. For example, many survivors of sexual assault find themselves frozen during the attack. This may be your body’s way of trying to protect you – especially if attempting to fight or flee seems futile. In this way, freeze can be a very adaptive survival technique.


What is the fawn response?

Fawning is a fourth trauma or stress response that was only identified recently by psychotherapist Pete Walker[2].

Fawning is when people try to appease other people, even at the expense of their own needs. Instead of confronting (fight), running away from (flight), or blocking out (freeze) the threat, people who go into the fawn response try to neutralize the threat by pleasing the abuser at whatever cost.

You may be in the fawn response if you often:

  • Apologize for things you didn’t do
  • Hold back your true opinions for fear of upsetting others
  • Have a hard time saying “no” to people
  • Put others’ needs before your own
  • Have trouble with personal boundaries
  • Try to fix or rescue people
  • Change your opinion or preferences in order to keep the peace

Some example scenarios of someone in the fawn response include:

  • A child who apologizes profusely for something they didn’t do in order to calm their parent’s anger
  • A young adult who chooses a career based on her parents’ wishes and not her own
  • Someone who verbally agrees with what their partner is saying to avoid an argument, even if they don’t truly agree
  • Someone who goes to any lengths in an effort to “keep the peace” in the home, even when they’re being abused
  • An employee who is hyper aware of their boss’s moods and takes on extra responsibility solely to avoid upsetting them

The fawn response is often associated with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Complex trauma is a type of trauma that occurs during childhood and is typically perpetrated by someone who was supposed to care for you (like a parent or a caregiver). When a child is abused repeatedly by a caregiver, they may develop attachment problems later on in life. They can also learn to go into the fawn response, since children aren’t able to fight or flee in their daily lives.

In adulthood, the fawn response can lead to dependent personality traits, codependent relationships and unhealthy attachment patterns.

Just like the freeze response, the fawn response develops unconsciously. It isn’t your fault if you find yourself going into the fawn response often, and this may be a result of childhood trauma.


The biology of fight-flight-freeze-fawn

Any stress response, including fight, flight, freeze, and fawn, are involuntary physical responses designed to survive or cope with stress.

When you’re presented with a threat, the body gets into gear to help you react[3]. This response starts in the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s responsible for fear. The amygdala sends signals that activate the sympathetic nervous system.

This causes your body to release certain chemicals and hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these chemicals causes changes in the body that are meant to help you deal with the threat.

For example, your lungs start taking in more oxygen by speeding up your breathing (this is why you could start hyperventilating when faced with a very scary situation). Your heart starts beating harder and faster to get more oxygen to your limbs and muscles. You might start feeling sweaty or clammy, and your hands and feet might feel cold because the blood is being redirected to more important muscle groups.

Other changes may happen without you even noticing them. Your blood thickens to prepare your body for potential injury. Your hearing gets sharper. Even your peripheral vision expands so that you’re better able to assess threats from all angles.

Your sympathetic nervous system causes all of these changes to happen involuntarily in your body to help you fight or flee. But when you’re in a situation that you can’t fight or flee from, then your parasympathetic nervous system may take over[4].

Your heart rate could decrease, and you get very still. You could feel your body temperature drop. You may even become immobile, which is known as tonic immobility. These are all changes that are driven by the parasympathetic nervous system.


What happens when you stay in fight-flight-freeze-fawn for too long?

All responses to danger and trauma – including fight, flight, freeze, and fawn – can be adaptive survival techniques. But a healthy stress response returns to “normal” after the danger has passed. For example, let’s say our ancestors were faced with a bear. Their fight-flight-freeze response kicked in to help them deal with the threat in some way. But as soon as the bear went away, their nervous system started returning to normal within 20 to 30 minutes.

Some people today, however, live with an overactive stress response. This means that even after the threat has passed, your stress response doesn’t return to “normal.” Many things can contribute to this, including stressful life events like childhood trauma or burnout.

Although the fight-flight-freeze-fawn responses can help you get through dangerous situations, they can be problematic when they’re overactive. For example, if you learn to go into the fawn response in every relationship (even ones that aren’t abusive or threatening), you could become codependent or develop unhealthy attachment patterns.

Chronically high levels of stress and cortisol have also been linked to many different health problems, including[5]:

  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperglycemia and Type 2 diabetes
  • Insomnia
  • Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety

Trauma recovery at The Center ● A Place of HOPE

No stress or trauma response is your fault, and these responses – whether you find yourself most frequently in the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response – can be adaptive ways to help you survive truly dangerous situations. But if your response is overactive, and stays around even after the danger has passed, then this may become a problem.

Unfortunately, many people who’ve been through a traumatic experience have overactive stress responses.

The good news is that you can heal from the effects of trauma and any associated mental health conditions (like depression or anxiety) that may have resulted from it. At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we offer a unique and proven Whole Person Care approach to trauma and mental health recovery. We go as deep as we need to address your medical, physical, psychological, emotional, relational, familial, nutritional, fitness and spiritual needs.

Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204/
[2] http://www.pete-walker.com/codependencyFawnResponse.htm
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/
[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5332864/
[5] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20046037

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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