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Fawn Trauma Response

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Imagine an ancient landscape. Imagine towering trees forming a canopy against the sun’s rays. Imagine a man, not that different from you and I, venturing cautiously through the prehistoric wilderness. Suddenly, the man locks eyes with a predator, a massive, snarling creature with sharp fangs and claws. The man’s body is immediately flooded with adrenaline. His muscles become tense, his mind becomes hyper-focused, and his heart beats faster, preparing him for an attack. This is the trauma response, an age-old survival mechanism ingrained in the very fabric of our being.

In the realm of mental health, understanding trauma responses is crucial for recognizing and addressing the complex ways individuals react to distressing events. The story of the ancient man serves to illustrate the primal origins of trauma responses. In the modern world, these responses have evolved, but are still just survival mechanisms at the end of the day. Understanding trauma responses means acknowledging the deep-rooted ways in which our bodies and minds react to threatening situations.

This article delves into the diverse landscape of trauma responses, shedding light on how they can shape our behaviors and influence our path toward healing and healthy relationships.

The Three Classic Trauma Responses: Flight, Fight, and Freeze

When confronted with danger or a threatening situation, the human body is equipped with a range of instinctive responses aimed at ensuring survival. The most well-understood trauma responses are “fight or flight” and “freeze” are deeply ingrained in our evolutionary history and have helped our ancestors navigate hazardous environments. Before we delve into the fourth trauma response, “fawn”, let’s recap the first three.

Fight Response

The fight response is an instinctive reaction where the body prepares to confront and combat a perceived threat head-on. When triggered, the body releases a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This leads to heightened alertness, increased heart rate, and the redirection of blood flow to the muscles, providing a burst of strength and energy. This response is closely linked to feelings of anger, aggression, and readiness for battle. It’s the body’s way of preparing to defend itself against potential harm.

Flight Response

The flight response is characterized by the urge to escape and flee from a threatening situation. Just like the fight response, the body releases adrenaline, which leads to increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and enhanced muscle function. In this case, the focus is on maximizing speed and agility to quickly remove oneself from danger. The flight response is associated with feelings of anxiety, panic, and a strong desire to seek safety. It’s a survival mechanism that has helped humans and other animals avoid potentially harmful situations.

Freeze Response

The freeze response is an involuntary reaction where the body becomes immobile and “freezes” in response to danger. This state of paralysis is often accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and reduced blood flow to the limbs. The freeze response might occur when fight or flight is not feasible, such as when confronted with an overwhelming threat or in situations where immobility might go unnoticed by predators. It’s a way for the body to avoid detection or aggression. Individuals experiencing the freeze response may feel a sense of dissociation, numbness, or detachment from their surroundings.

While these responses were essential for the survival of our ancestors in dangerous environments, they still play a role in shaping our reactions to stress and danger in the modern world. These responses are not mutually exclusive, and they can occur in combination or transition from one to another depending on the nature of the perceived threat and an individual’s physiological and psychological state.

The Fawn Trauma Response

While the “fight or flight” and “freeze” responses have been recognized for a long time, the concept of “fawning” as a trauma response gained traction more recently. The “fawn” response is a term that has emerged in the field of trauma therapy to describe a specific coping mechanism that individuals might develop as a response to specific types of trauma.

The fawn response can be understood as a survival strategy that involves attempting to please others, often at the expense of one’s own needs and boundaries. It’s an attempt to minimize the risk of harm by appeasing potential aggressors or threats. This response can be especially common in situations where individuals have experienced childhood trauma, as they learn to prioritize others’ needs in order to ensure their safety or emotional well-being.

A fawning trauma response often emerges as a result of experiencing complex trauma. Complex trauma refers to repeated or prolonged exposure to traumatic events, typically during childhood, that significantly disrupt a person’s sense of safety, self-worth, and identity. Complex PTSD is a psychological condition that can arise from such experiences and is characterized by a range of symptoms beyond those found in traditional PTSD. The fawn response becomes relevant in the context of Complex PTSD due to its profound impact on an individual’s self-concept, relationships, and overall well-being.

Individuals with Complex PTSD may exhibit a heightened fawn response as they navigate a world that feels threatening due to their traumatic history. This can manifest in people-pleasing tendencies, difficulty setting boundaries, fear of conflict, and a sense of unworthiness. Moreover, the constant suppression of their own needs and desires can lead to emotional dysregulation, dissociation, and challenges in forming authentic connections.

Sometimes, the fawn response can sometimes be seen as “people-pleasing”. Individuals who lean towards the fawn trauma response find themselves consistently prioritizing the needs and desires of others over their own, often at a great personal cost.

The Impact on Mental Health and Relationships

Recognizing the fawn trauma response is a pivotal step in healing from complex trauma and managing the impact of Complex PTSD. The fawn response, while adaptive in traumatic environments, becomes maladaptive in the context of healing and recovery. It prevents individuals from asserting their own needs and seeking authentic connections, reinforcing a cycle of distress and emotional turmoil.

Impact of Fawning Response on Mental Health

The fawn response can significantly impact mental health. Individuals who habitually prioritize the needs and desires of others over their own can experience feelings of resentment, powerlessness, and internal conflict. Suppressing one’s own needs for the sake of avoiding conflict or gaining approval can lead to emotional dysregulation, low self-esteem, and a sense of disconnection from one’s authentic identity. Over time, these feelings can contribute to anxiety, depression, and a diminished sense of self-worth.

The fawn response might also lead to difficulty identifying and expressing emotions. Suppressing one’s true feelings to prevent upsetting others can result in emotional numbness and a lack of emotional awareness. This internal dissonance can further exacerbate mental health challenges.

Impact of Fawning Response on Relationships

The fawn response has profound implications for relationships. Individuals who are prone to fawning often struggle to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. They may find themselves in codependent dynamics, where they place the needs of others above their own to an excessive degree. This can lead to feelings of resentment, frustration, and an inability to advocate for their own needs.

Furthermore, the fawn response can hinder the development of authentic and meaningful connections. People-pleasing behaviors can lead to relationships that lack genuine reciprocity and emotional intimacy. Over time, this can erode trust and lead to a sense of isolation, despite efforts to maintain harmony.

The Role of Trauma Therapy

The inclusion of the fawn trauma response in trauma therapy and discussions about mental health have expanded our understanding of how trauma can shape behavior and interpersonal dynamics. Therapists, counselors, and individuals alike have found value in acknowledging and addressing the fawn response as part of the healing process.

Trauma therapy approaches, including those influenced by Pete Walker’s work, focus on helping individuals recognize their trauma responses, explore their origins, and develop healthier coping strategies. By understanding the fawn response and its impact, individuals can work towards healing from past traumas, building healthy boundaries, and fostering authentic connections.

Fawn Trauma Response Therapy

If you or a loved one is struggling with PTSD, don’t suffer alone. Our licensed and compassionate clinicians employ trauma-informed therapy across our different virtual and in-person mental health treatment programs (PHP & IOP) so you can achieve mental well-being. Contact Clear Behavioral Health today to get started.

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