Ever wonder why people often stop making sense when they are arguing?
It’s because of the fight-or-flight response system. Our bodies perceive a threat to our beliefs the same as it perceives a physical threat, such as a hungry tiger. Once our bodies perceive threat, then control of the body is taken over by the limbic system.
The limbic system has to simplify. It has to shut down all non-necessary processes, like digestion, logical thinking, empathy, etc in order to pour all the energy into fighting or flighting. The brain uses up TONS of energy. So the limbic system has to disable most functions of the brain in order to deal with the threat. None of this is conscious.
So if you are in fight/flight mode, the part of your brain responsible for logic is being deprived of energy needed to function. In a heated argument, words basically become just rocks to throw.
Research on trauma has shown that humans actually have two more options when threatened, including freeze and fawn. We hear more about the active options of fight and flight than we do about the passive options of freeze and fawn. Humans have all four options available to their limbic system, but an individual’s genetic makeup seems to cause a person to default to one option more often than to the others.
“Freeze” is pretty obvious to explain. Instead of taking action, or running, the person’s instinct is to hide or play dead like a possum. This tends to be my personal default limbic reaction; if I am upset, I am paralyzed by choice and I fail to act. The irritating thing about me is that this in turn forces those around me to act instead, since I am frozen. This is the hardest thing for me to conquer in the classroom. Due to my damaged hearing and prioperception due to my inner ear disorder, I am easily triggered by sound and sudden movement in class: I become confused, frozen, increasingly unable to think straight, as the blood in my brain leaves my prefrontal cortex. It is hard for me to “have eyes in the back of my head” and deal out swift, humane consequences. I tend to freeze up and ignore too many behaviors. I must practice lots of prayer and mindfulness to help me be more resilient, to keep myself from getting triggered in class, thus becoming way less effective as a teacher.
“Fawn” is when you give your personal strength and loyalty to someone stronger in hopes of gaining protection. When you have a caring, responsible leader, it is a very useful response. But when you have bullies or tyrants, “fawn” is the fuel for Stockholm Syndrome. When threatened physically or emotionally, a “fawner” tries to gain safety by sucking up to the source of threat in hopes of being spared physical, social, emotional pain. Make no mistake; emotional pain is just as real as physical pain; they have lots of scans that show that it causes our brains to react way as they do when in physical pain. For thousands of years, being ejected from the social group and thus its protection often has meant literal death.
So “fawn” is useful when forming healthy groups, if led by someone humane and mature. But “fawn” is also the fuel of tribalism based in fear and a twisted sense of belonging. In order to please whatever they believe to be in power (whether it is an attractive person or an Ideology or a mangled vision of God) the fawners will try show their loyalty by throwing others under the bus. Middle school cliques often aren’t life or death, but it really does feel like it to their brains. Fawners give up their personal power and sense of integrity in hopes of being accepted by the group and gaining safety. The insecure power-mongers then feed on the adoration and energy of the toadies and demand more adoration, often making up juicy details about The Ideology or telling lies about others to keep their followers hanging on. The “fawn” response to emotional insecurity is the fuel of many a mean-girl clique.
A triggered student may feel like the teacher is the enemy. Or, the student may see the teacher as benign, but feel compelled to act out in class or be rude to the teacher to earn the approval of the kids in power. There are so many social dynamics at work that an insecure kid feels buffeted.
I think that the emotional trauma suffered in school can follow people throughout their lives, causing some to remain unhealthily stuck in adolescent-like patterns. I think that “fawn” is often responsible for fearful people joining unhealthy groups in hopes of gaining protection. The holocaust could not have happened without “fawn.” Some people have more resilience skills than others, spend less time in fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and can more easily find mutually beneficial groups, rather than cliques that feed on the limbic-fueled energy exchange between bullies and fawners that results in battles of inclusion and exclusion. I want to help kids feel emotionally safer, so they are not getting triggered so often. Daily I struggle with the question “how do I as a teacher do a better job of helping kids develop resilience skills?”