Self-care and the Freeze/Fawn Response

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readJan 15, 2024

Most people who have been through complex trauma know what it is like to experience the freeze/fawn response, even if they do not know it. We downplay our needs to complete the needs of others and find we cannot suppress our pain. Both freeze and fawn are trauma responses.

In this article, we will explore together how to care for yourself when you experience the freeze/fawn responses.

A Review: What is the Freeze/Fawn Response

Have you ever wondered why you respond to the needs of others the way you do? Perhaps you do more for other people than you do for yourself. The freeze/fawn response causes this behavior.

First, let’s look at the freeze response. The freeze response occurs when you find you are in a position where you cannot fight or flee. Also known as the camouflage response, the freeze response keeps one from responding to a threat normally. With freeze, you cannot react and feel frozen in fear, like you cannot move or are numb.

When an intimate partner wishes to gain power over you and control you and the relationship, they may use abusive tactics such as emotional, psychological, or physical abuse. The fear reaction that results is the freeze response, where you shut down to avoid feeling fear, disappointment, and intimidation.

The fawn response is similar as it is also a trauma response most often learned in childhood, but that also occurs in adulthood. This response happens when, instead of trying to avoid the abuse by immobilization, you try to appease your abuser to minimize the danger.

Someone using the fawn response does whatever they can to keep the threat happy despite what they may need.

The Freeze/Fawn Response is the Ultimate Betrayal

Those of us who use the freeze/fawn response to get through life are committing the ultimate betrayal of ourselves. How can I say that? Because we bend over backward to fulfill other’s needs but ignore our own.

This self-betrayal has long-term effects on your mental health as constantly living your life hiding or appeasing takes its toll. Mental health conditions such as major depression and anxiety disorders are common consequences of the freeze/fawn responses.

Besides mental health problems, people who freeze/fawn lack boundaries, which leads to an inability to express their needs and desires in any relationship. People using these trauma responses also have a horrendous time standing up for themselves, leading to self-loathing and feeling trapped.

The fawn response leaves a person with a loss of identity, which results in toxic relationships, life-draining co-dependency, and neglecting self-care.

We often hear or read posts about self-care, but what is it really?

While self-care looks different for everyone, it is behaviors that promote health and happiness. It is critical to have a well-balanced self-care regimen that covers the seven pillars:

Self-care involves focusing on yourself, making sure you rest, reflect, replenish, and renew yourself as often as possible. Self-care means meeting your needs and goals as well as possible, taking notice of your accomplishments, and generally nurturing all parts of yourself.

If you exhibit the freeze/fawn responses, you are not doing excellent self-care. In fact, you may find you are doing just the opposite.

Self-Care in the Shadow of the Freeze/Fawn Responses

Those who have complex post-traumatic stress disorder often struggle with the freeze/fawn trauma responses. We have been programmed to ignore our needs and to make sure our abuser gets their way to protect ourselves.

Self-care is the last thing on the minds of those who live with abusive partners in a situation that is a reflection of what they went through as children. However, who will care for us if we do not care for our needs? We are only responsible for the actions we take and not the behaviors of others.

We must learn to care for our bodies and minds to achieve fulfilling and happy lives. This includes bathing, brushing our teeth, eating well, and, when needed, attending therapy to help us understand why we are the way we are.

Instead of worrying about what the other adult in the relationship is doing, we must spend time and energy caring for ourselves. The other person won’t enjoy our change of heart, especially if they are a narcissist, but they will survive.

It’s time to learn to care for our own needs and allow other adults to fend for themselves.

Overcoming the Freeze/Fawn Responses to Do Self-Care

As in any problem, the first step is awareness and recognition that you are using the freeze/fawn responses. Next, you must allow yourself to let go of any shame you may harbor for your trauma responses. Trauma responses are a normal part of being a mammal; when used correctly, they can save your life. You are not responsible, nor should you feel shame because you did what comes naturally.

If you can, it is imperative that you find a trauma-informed therapist. They can lead you to a deeper understanding of who you are and how you tick. Don’t worry; you will not need therapy forever, but it is critical if you are to break free of any abusive relationship you may find yourself in and take care of yourself.

Next, start noticing and honoring your basic needs, not allowing yourself to think to yourself that you aren’t worth it. You are worthy just because you are alive and breathing. Distinguish what you need from yourself and others to feel good about yourself and meet those self-care needs. You did not deserve the treatment you received as a child, nor do you deserve to be poorly treated today.

Find support by asking your therapist if they know of any meetings you can attend where you can gain more of the help you need. Millions of people are in your boat, so don’t turn down an opportunity to talk to others just like you. You need that sense of belonging to help build up your self-esteem, which has taken a brutal hit over the past several years or the course of your lifetime.

Ending Our Time Together

I have been in the boat where you wake up not wondering how you feel today but ask yourself, instead, how are we today, meaning your significant other? I have complex post-traumatic stress disorder that formed as a direct result of childhood abuse.

Growing up, I didn’t learn that I had a right to my needs and to get them met. As an adult, I still find I want to appease and please those around me to the detriment of my mental health.

Self-care? That was something other people did not me. My entire life, I was wrapped up in meeting other people’s needs and ensuring they had what they needed.

Then, in therapy, I learned to set my first boundaries, and I’ll be honest, I felt scared. I didn’t want to rock the boat, so to speak. However, I found that it felt delicious to tell others you may come this far and no more. My self-esteem slowly recovered and healed as I learned other self-care methods.

If you find yourself living through someone else, it is time to get a life.

I hope this piece was helpful and brought someone to understand that they are worthwhile and deserve to be treated as well or better than they have been treating others.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.