The stress response is a crucial survival mechanism that exists in most mammals and has contributed to the survival of humans for hundreds of thousands of years.
The stress response, often known as the fight-flight-freeze response, is overseen by the amygdala, located within what is commonly termed the “reptilian brain.” This region represents the oldest and most rudimentary part of our cerebral structure and processes information in a simplistic, reactionary way.
The amygdala detects sensory inputs, establishes fundamental associations by interacting with the cortex, hippocampus, and other brain regions, and subsequently triggers a response based on the associations with prior experiences and knowledge.
Throughout history, this mechanism has ensured our survival. The rapid detection and response generation of the amygdala and the autonomic nervous system has enabled humans to escape from or confront threats, disengage from overwhelming situations, and deceive predators by feigning death, surrender, or helplessness.
Fight or Flight Response
A fight or flight response triggers a range of physiological changes. When faced with acute stress, the amygdala’s central nucleus, which is responsible for fear processing and activation, communicates with the hypothalamus, which, in turn, activates the sympathetic nervous system. This prompts the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline by stimulating the adrenal glands. This process leads to several automatic and unconscious effects:
- Breathing quickens, and airways expand to boost oxygen intake.
- The heart beats faster to deliver oxygenated blood to muscles for energy.
- Hearing sharpens.
- Peripheral vision enhances, and pupils dilate for improved vision.
- Sugar and fats convert into energy for running or fighting.
- Blood diverts to the brain and muscles, leading to sweating, paleness, and goosebumps.
- Mouth dries up as salivary gland activity decreases.
- Blood supply to the gut is reduced, which affects digestion and often causes discomfort.
- Glucose and fats are mobilized to fuel muscles.
The Freeze Response refers to a different physiological process than fight or flight and is often described as “attentive immobility.” The person who is “frozen” remains highly alert and vigilant but is incapable of moving or addressing the source of danger.
Individuals may spontaneously transition among fight, flight, or freeze based on their unique response to the experience, their physiology, and their behavior. Despite its physical discomfort, this response primes the body for survival and fosters optimal performance under pressure.
Until recently, it was thought that the body had only the aforementioned responses to threat– fight, flight, or freeze. In the 1970s, it was discovered that an additional response exists, which has a very different effect on biological functions and is driven by the parasympathetic nervous system.
The fawn response, also known as the “please and appease” reaction, involves consistently disregarding one’s own needs to appease others in order to avoid conflict, criticism, or disapproval. This behavior is often associated with people-pleasing and codependency. It’s a strategy in which individuals prioritize the desires and demands of others to seek safety, often at the expense of their own needs, rights, preferences, and boundaries.
When confronted with a certain type of perceived threat, individuals who fawn tend to become immobile and display a submissive demeanor. The fawn response can manifest as people pleasing, appeasement, compliance, and a loss of identity in stressful situations. The stress response is complex and is influenced deeply by previous experience and trauma. This means that a person may fawn in certain situations, yet use the fight or flight response – driven by the sympathetic nervous system – in others. Understanding this aspect of the stress response is vital in psychology and therapy to help individuals better manage and cope with stressors and feel less disconnected from their bodies.
Neuroception refers to how our nervous system detects cues in the environment to assess whether they are safe, dangerous, or potentially threatening. Fawn stems from the neuroception of relational threat, a deep-rooted fear of endangering relationships. The neuroception of relational threat involves perceiving social or interpersonal situations as potentially harmful or endangering. When interpersonal relationships have been harmful or dangerous in the past, the amygdala is likely to perceive subsequent interpersonal conflicts – regardless of their objective danger – as threatening and therefore trigger what seems to be an appropriate response.
Why and When do we Fawn?
Fawning is a proactive, learned response to prevent potential harm or danger, leading a person to appease and comply to maintain the relationship and reduce the perceived threat.
When a situation resembles a past experience that a person was unable to keep themselves safe from, they may freeze or fawn. They may have attempted to fight or flee in the past without success and encountered emotional or physical harm.
Fawning and Past Trauma
The fawn response is often connected with relational or complex trauma. Relational trauma is emotional, psychological, or physical harm stemming from damaging interactions or experiences within personal relationships. Complex trauma is caused by repeated traumatic events over time, typically during childhood, although often continuing throughout life. People who fawn have often experienced an abusive upbringing or coercive relationship, which makes them suppress their true selves to seek validation and approval from others while denying personal needs. Therefore, the fawn response can be viewed as a survival coping strategy in unsafe, neglectful, or abusive environments.
In the case of relational trauma, fawning involves adapting to abusive caregivers or partners by complying with their demands and making oneself useful to minimize harm. An individual’s trauma response is also thought to be closely tied to their attachment style formed during childhood. While these responses can be adaptive, an adverse upbringing can lead to a habitual trauma response that persists even when it no longer serves a purpose, potentially causing physical, mental, and relational problems.
Fawning can be a valuable survival strategy in certain situations but may also lead to unhealthy dynamics in relationships if overused. Poor boundaries related to the fawn response can lead to a deep neglect of personal needs, burnout, loneliness, and a compromised sense of self. Constantly prioritizing others’ emotions and opinions and struggling to say no may result in a loss of personal voice and integrity. Understanding when and why you fawn is crucial for managing stress and promoting healthier interpersonal interactions.
Healing involves recognizing the impact of fawning, learning to set clear boundaries, and developing self-love and self-care. Seeking therapy with a trauma-informed professional can help identify the root causes of the response and guide individuals toward healthier coping mechanisms. Embracing self-awareness, expressing personal values, and establishing boundaries foster resilience, empower individuals to break free from detrimental patterns, and allow them build a foundation for balanced, fulfilling lives.
 Porges S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76 Suppl 2(Suppl 2), S86–S90. https://doi.org/10.3949/ccjm.76.s2.17
 Donahue, J.J. (2020). Fight-Flight-Freeze System. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_751