What might you do if you are confronted with a traumatic incident? Would you confront the situation or would you run away, call for help or freeze on the spot?
The three main reactions to trauma are ‘Fight’, ‘Flight’ or ‘Freeze’. The fourth, less acknowledged, reaction is ‘Fawn’ (appease). To describe all four reactions I will use an example of a team of staff who experience their manager as a bully. Some staff will become rebellious, try to ‘Fight’ the bully, or take out a grievance. Others will want to leave, taking up the ‘Flight’ reaction. Some staff may feel ‘Frozen’, unsure what to do, unable to act. And the fourth reaction, ‘Fawn’, may result in staff wanting to please all parties, as if turning a blind eye to what is occurring and pretend everything is fine.
We see clear examples of the fawn response in the Jimmy Savile case, where so many people directly witnessed or suspected that Jimmy Savile was sexually abusing children and didn’t say anything. This is a trauma reaction, as these individuals are often frightened of the consequences of speaking up. In sexual violent crime ‘Freeze’ is often the most common response. When an individual feels ‘over-powered’, freeze may seem like the only option available.
We do not know which survival response will be activated and different survival responses may be activated depending on the experience or may be impacted by our current life circumstances. The part of the brain that is activated under threat is disconnected from the analytical part of the brain, therefore the threat response does not have time to be analytical and considered in which survival response is activated.
Consider situations in which, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself. You have neither the hormone-assisted strength to respond aggressively to the inimical force nor the anxiety-driven speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you.
Under such unnerving circumstances, “freezing up” or “numbing out”—in a word, dissociating from the here and now—is the response that may be activated. Being physically, mentally, and emotionally immobilised by your consternation permits you not to feel the harrowing enormity of what’s happening to you, which in your hyperaroused state might threaten your very sanity.
The fawn response, in my view, refers to the early and both consciously and unconsciously learned rules of survival in infancy and early childhood. Those imperatives concern who we can be, who we can't be, and what we can and cannot do if we are to be in relationship with significant others. The rules also address such questions as, "Who do I need you to be, and who do you need me to be, if we are to be in relationship with each other?" These accommodations have sometimes been referred to as the false self, but the view through the lens of the fawn response lends particular understandings to what that means, especially as it is distinct from fight, flight, or freeze.
Unfortunately, as humans we start to criticise our response. Compared to animals who can shake off the trauma and get on with the next day, humans start to berate and judge themselves, for ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘not being good enough’. The four survival reactions are needed; they may save our lives!
If these negative berating thoughts become unmanageable it may be helpful to reach out and seek support from specialist trauma therapists to talk about how you feel and challenge the irrational thoughts, to enable recovery from trauma symptoms, and to manage the feelings that the trauma has caused.