The Freeze and Fawn Responses

CPTSD Foundation
7 min readJan 8, 2024

Often, people who live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder experience emotional pain caused by traumatic events.

By now, most of you have heard of the four trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. These four essential reactions are caused when you feel stressed, traumatized, or in danger.

This article will focus on the freeze and fawn responses related to codependency and ways to counteract them.

What are the Freeze and Fawn Responses

Freeze is your body’s biological reaction to a situation where you cannot escape, that causes you to shut down and literally freeze. The freeze response causes symptoms like the following:

  • Your heart rate decreases.
  • You dissociate to detach from what is happening.
  • You may feel numb.
  • You are immobilized where you feel you cannot move your legs or arms.
  • You may find you are holding your breath.
  • You feel confused.
  • You have problems speaking.
  • You are not able to act or decide.
  • You lack focus and have trouble concentrating.

Another angle to consider is that, like all animals, sometimes playing dead or freezing in a very quiet stance can save your life. It is not uncommon for people who are being sexually assaulted to become immobile and incapable of running away or fighting.

Fawn is different. You may fawn when it feels safer to be submissive and obedient to your attacker than any of the three other responses. Fawning causes you to please and appease someone else instead of taking care of your needs. The most common incidence where fawn is used may be in an abusive situation, such as a child who cannot escape their attacker. The child might feel and indeed be safer if they fawn.

There are definitive signs that the fawn response is activated, which include the following:

  • You have a hard time saying “no.”
  • You are a people-pleaser.
  • You pretend to agree with others.
  • You do what you are told no matter what the consequences to you.
  • You put other’s needs before your own.
  • You are not able to set and maintain healthy boundaries.

As one can see, neither response is a healthy way to conduct one’s life. The freeze and fawn responses are rarely equal happiness and are a deterrent to doing well as an adult.

Freeze/Fawn and Codependency

Too often, adults who were abused as children grow up trying to appease and please all the people in their lives just as they did when trying to survive when they were younger. When the adult freezes and fawns over other adults, it is called codependency.

Codependency is an attempt by an adult — who grew up in a home that was harsh, critical, unforgiving, and full of abandonment and judgment — to relate to others.

Codependent adults suffer from a disorder born of complex trauma called complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a response to repeated and severe abuse and neglect.

The caretaking behaviors exhibited by those with CPTSD may have worked to reduce abuse in the past, but they are harmful to adult relationships. With codependency, the adult who has complex post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t pay enough attention to their own needs and instead focuses entirely on the needs and wants of others, making them a sitting duck for narcissists.

Codependency has a spectrum ranging from minimal to becoming totally fused in the relationship, asking themselves what “we” need instead of what “I” need.

The Neurological Roots of the Freeze/Fawn Response

The human brain is hard-wired for empathy, instincts, and reflexes that help guide a person throughout life. Babies are born to reach out for love, seek security, and a sense of belonging.

When children don’t find the nurturing and love they need to feel safe, they will begin to form attachment styles that are not healthy, and that will last their entire life. Babies and older children are extremely good at reading their caregivers through their body language and how nurturing they are through mirror neurons (brain cells).

Mirror neurons help humans process facial expressions and interactions between individuals and those around them. This type of brain cell allows us to perceive other feelings without using any words. These mirror neurons enable a child to conform better to an abusive relationship because they learn to fawn to survive.

However, while fawning can prevent tragedy and supply some measure of safety, children who grow up using this survival tactic often have adverse mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression.

Healing the Freeze/Fawn (Codependent) Response

One might use many techniques to overcome the fawn/freeze or codependence response.

First, one must understand where codependency initiates and what causes the behavior. Knowing yourself and what you went through as a child aids in the healing process by allowing you not to be a mystery to yourself. If you do not understand where the freeze and fawn responses initiated, it isn’t easy to overcome them.

Explore how your body holds your fear and how the freeze/fawn response makes you feel physically. Most people who experience codependency have a great deal of self-loathing. Because they hate themselves, codependent folks do not treat themselves well and are sitting ducks to become hooked at the hip with someone else. This self-hate is keenly felt in the body as chronic pain and eating disorders, to name a few.

Another way to deal with the freeze/fawn response is to learn to express your needs and wants. This task is difficult at best as we have been conditioned to not stand up for our needs or wants. Instead, we tend to believe we are doing great things by helping others when we are avoiding ourselves all along. Facing your fears and managing your trauma responses also requires saying the tiny word NO, which may turn out to be the most helpful word in the English language, especially when it is used as a complete sentence.

It is also critical to put yourself first. If you do not put yourself first, you cannot help anyone, including your children. Pause during your busy day to consider whether you have cared for your emotional and physical needs. Through this process, you will learn to loathe yourself much less and even to love yourself.

Ending Our Time Together

No one likes to admit they have problems with codependency, as in our society today, the word brings with it so much stigma. However, you were not born codependent; you learned very early that the freeze/fawn response would help you survive, emotionally and sometimes physically.

There is no shame in having a freeze/fawn response that is out of control. Codependency comes naturally to those who develop complex post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood trauma.

I am a prime example of a person who has a codependent personality. I have significant problems with not thinking for myself, and when I do, I will quickly fawn to protect myself. I often get up in the morning asking myself regarding my brother, who I live with, “How are we feeling today?” although he does not ask for my response.

Living with a runaway freeze/fawn response is not easy, and I am working diligently to begin showing my true feelings toward everyone in my family.

If you, like me, have a problem with codependency, do not despair. Overcoming anything takes time, and I believe in both of us.

“When we begin to set boundaries with people we love, a really hard thing happens: they hurt. They may feel a hole where you used to plug up their aloneness, their disorganization, or their financial irresponsibility. Whatever it is, they will feel a loss. If you love them, this will be difficult for you to watch. But, when you are dealing with someone who is hurting, remember that your boundaries are both necessary for you and helpful for them. If you have been enabling them to be irresponsible, your limit setting may nudge them toward responsibility.” — Henry Cloud

“When you say Yes to others, make sure you are not saying No to yourself.” — Paulo Coelho

References

Roelofs K. “ Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2017;372(1718):20160206. doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0206‌.

Schmidt NB, Richey JA, Zvolensky MJ, Maner JK. “ Exploring human freeze responses to a threat stressor.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 2008;39(3):292–304. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2007.08.002‌.

Trauma-Informed Partner Support

Since CPTSD Foundation began, we’ve understood the critical role that supportive partners play in the life of a trauma survivor. Spouses, partners, caregivers, siblings, and anyone who is directly involved in the daily life of an adult survivor of complex trauma.

This program provides that safe place of encouragement, support, information, and validation that supportive partners and helpers need. You are safe here and among others who understand the challenges of helping a survivor navigate daily life.

To sign up, go to https://cptsdfoundation.org/partners/

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

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