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Fight or flight, or Freeze or Fawn?

The fight or flight response is the body's reaction to a perceived acute threat. But what happens when you can neither flee nor fight?

The freeze and fawn responses are especially necessary when living with violence.

It is the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for this protective function, where hormones are pumped into the body, the heart rate increases and we get ready to flee or fight. The whole point of your body's response is to keep you alive, and evolutionarily speaking, being able to respond to perceived dangers and threats has been essential to our survival. The system will do almost everything to avoid the escalation of a dangerous situation, therefore you cannot control when and how the system reacts. It is important to understand that we are not only talking about physically threatening situations where one's life is clearly in danger. The system reacts to perceived threats - also emotional threats, for example a perceived danger of being abandoned.

Traditionally speaking, people have looked a lot at fight or flight, as two primary stress reactions. When the system detects danger, it triggers the release of hormones such as adrenaline that prepares the body to react. For most, the system will primarily seek escape, as this often involves the least risk of injury. In some cases, the system will assess that escape is not possible, and therefore the body will be prepared for battle. All this takes place more or less unconsciously. In both cases, you will feel that your heart begins to pound, you may begin to shake, your body becomes tense, your ears ring, and you may experience fear and panic. When you are in fight or flight mode, it is another part of the brain that controls. You therefore find it difficult to think logically, find it difficult to think about anything other than the threat, and can find it difficult to speak - the system's only focus is to get AWAY from the threat.

Some situations are so dangerous (or perceived to be so dangerous) that the system assesses that we can neither flee nor fight, and here new responses come into play. When a situation is so overwhelming that we cannot see our way out of it, the body can react by freezing - the freeze response. Here the body becomes heavy, the heart beats more slowly, we stiffen and wait until the dangerous situation is over. A bit like an animal, the body plays dead in the hope that the threat level drops quickly.

A fourth response, which is not as well known as fight or flight, but on the other hand a decisive response for some is the fawn. Fawn is the reaction to a perceived threat, which is about becoming as compliant and pleasing as possible in order to de-escalate the situation. Most often, fawn is used when the system judges that neither fight, flight nor freeze is possible. When the fawn response is activated, everything is done to please, soothe and submit - again, to ensure survival. This also means that one abandons one's own boundaries and needs, because in this way one avoids conflict. The response can be life-changing and therefore effective, but with severe consequences. Over time, boundaries, demands, needs and self-understanding blur if you are still in a relationship where the fawn response is necessary.

The fawn response is extremely familiar to people living in abusive relationships. Here we are often keen to de-escalate, to avoid conflicts, to preserve the good in the relationship, and in conflicts, fawn can be the only way to get out of the situation safely. You submit to your partner and please in the hope that he will calm down. You are not always aware that this is what you are doing. Sometimes it only becomes really clear after the relationship, when you, for example, go to therapy and reflect on the fact that the situation was actually extremely unpleasant to be in. Many will feel guilty that they "didn't do anything", that they didn't speak up and said stop, and here it is crucial that you understand that the fawn and freeze reactions ARE to do something. You have done everything the system deemed necessary to get safely through the threatening situation. It can be difficult to process the traumatic experiences you have experienced, and the system can be "stuck" in a constant state of alertness. It can be important to understand your body's reactions and get to know triggers in order to move forward. It is ALWAYS important to talk to someone about what you are experiencing.

Do you recognize the fawn response from yourself? Consider who you have to talk to and explore your options for seeking help.

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