Fight Flight Freeze FAWN

Ever wonder why people often stop making sense when they are arguing?

The answer is in our bodies, not our minds or souls. Arguing people are triggered; their bodies are in fight-or-flight. Remember that regardless of what you believe about morality or our immortal souls, our bodies themselves are still mammals.  (If you doubt this truth, just try to mess with a mother’s child, and see what kind of Mama-Bear response you get!)

In my decades of teaching, especially when it comes to de-escalating upset students, I have found it helpful to, for just a moment, set aside all my should bes and ought tos, and examine WHY a child is reacting in a certain way.

The thing they don’t tell you in school is this; our mammal bodies perceive a threat to our social status as a threat to life. Our bodies are equipped with 4 survival mechanisms; fight, run, hide, or befriend.  Once our bodies detect threat of any kind,  control of the body is taken over by the limbic system, which releases chemicals that demand ACTION.

If a person is in  acute fight/flight mode, (I like to call it limbic hell)  much of their brain is offline. The brain uses LOTS of energy, so, one of the first things the limbic system shuts down is the energy-hogging prefrontal cortex. This means that logical thinking, empathy, and communication skills are cut off,  so that the energy goes towards fighting or flighting to deal with the threat. In a heated argument, words basically become just rocks to throw. Some people become  very skilled at throwing word rocks. But actual communication is no longer happening. Whether the trigger is a real immediate threat or not; your mammal body cannot tell, because the brain is offline. Your mammal body just picks up its word rocks.

Remember that none of this is conscious. Our limbic system operates the way our blood circulates; without us thinking about it.

Humans have four options available to their limbic system. We hear way more about the active options of fight and flight than we do about the passive options of freeze and fawn.

“Freeze” is pretty obvious to explain. Instead of taking action, or fleeing, the person’s instinct is to hide or play dead like a possum.  This is me; if upset, I become paralyzed.This has been my greatest challenge in the classroom. Due to my damaged hearing and proprioperception 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 freeze up like a literal  deer in headlights. My mom is also a freeze-r.

Some teachers and parents, depending on their fight/flight/freeze/fawn style,  may struggle with fight instinct instead and end up yelling, as, in the moment, the students seem to their mammal body (not their conscious mind) to be enemies.  We all have limbic responses that we are struggling to control. Reading up on these things has made me aware of my own unconscious mammal survival impulses. It takes lots of  prayer and mindfulness to help me be more resilient, note what is going on with my body, and keep myself from getting triggered in class and shutting down.

It seems to me that the least-examined  of the trauma responses  is “Fawn.” This is when a person gives their 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, or emotional pain. (If you’ve read Harry Potter, think of Voldemort’s supporters as toxic fawners)

Make no mistake; emotional pain is just as real to our bodies as physical pain; there are lots of scans that show that emotional pain causes our brains to react just as they do when we are in physical pain. For thousands of years,¬† being ejected from the social group and thus its protection often has meant LITERAL DEATH, so don’t ever make fun of middle schoolers for their pain in being rejected from their social group. To our mammal body, social belonging is just as necessary as food or shelter. If a person feels unsafe, it is EXHILARATING to feel belonging, and the quickest, cheapest way to feel like you belong is to point out those who do NOT belong.

Middle school cliques often aren’t life or death, but it really does feel like it to their bodies. Fawners give up their personal power and sense of integrity in hopes of being accepted and gaining safety. The bullies feed on the adoration and energy of the toadies, get addicted, and demand MORE adoration, often making up Juicy Lies to keep their followers hanging on.  The “fawn”  response, fueled by emotional insecurity, is the glue of many cliques.

Social interactions between kids can be difficult and complex. Relationships between students and teachers can be too.  Family social norms (especially those dealing with authority and autonomy) of kids in a classroom vary WIDELY. So a kid may feel triggered at school just because the expectations are so different. A triggered student may, in his  mammal body, 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 acceptance of the kids who have social power over them. Or feel forced to bully a lower-status child in order to fit in, compromising their integrity. These actions may not seem significant, but they can shape how a child views himself or herself.

I think that social patterns like this can stick with a child way past childhood. Unhealthy habits can follow people throughout their lives, causing some to remain stuck in adolescent-like behaviors. Many adults laugh laugh and poke fun at “high school drama”,  but I find that such ridiculing unwise. If we stop and examine it, I think we will see that many grown-ups keep going through the same kinds of drama throughout their lives. Pain is much easier to bear, (and thus has a chance of being healed) when you stare it in the face instead of avoiding and ridiculing.

I think that  “fawn” is often partly responsible for people getting into unhealthy or abusive relationships in hopes of gaining protection or value.   People with narcissistic tendencies often end up pairing with  overly empathetic “fawn” types, and things get out of balance quickly, causing misery.

Unhealthy relationships often happen between individuals, and they can also happen in large groups of people who don’t even know each other, but who are seeking belonging. Cliques in school are practice for holocausts. The holocaust could not have happened without “fawn.”  Narcissistic leaders like Hitler gaslight and provide streamlined fake, shocking information to their victims, keeping them “hooked” on a high of fear.  Kind of like how middle school bullies treat unpopular kids who want into the clique. This usually involves scapegoating; choosing people to demonize and unify against.  Hitler was in a narcissistic relationship with a large number of the frightened German populace, and his reign fed on this fearful energy. Fawners fall for the bullies’ lies, not because they are dumb or evil, but because their bodies tell them that trusting the leader is the only way to be accepted into the group and thus to survive the danger.

If “fawn” types are helped to recognize their own value, instead of ridiculed, then they can strengthen their feelings of meaning, belonging, and security, so they don’t rely so much on seeking strength and security from others. Or giving themselves away completely to try to feel worthy. Healthy, untriggered folks can see that our families and communities are meant to be a web of help for each other, and that each of us is meant to spend our lives and energies being both receivers and givers, instead of spending most of our time looking for enemies and seeking protection.

I hope that my explanation helped you understand some confusing human behaviors. As a non-neurotypical, outside the world of normal human interaction but looking in through the window, I have been working on understanding human behavior for my whole life. Please email me if you have any questions about this topic; I would be happy to answer as best as I can.

If you want to read more, here is a short bibliography of how I learned about  fight/flight/freeze/fawn.

Art by Cecil Fish

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