Check out the previous part where I explained how and why 2 parts of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) might want to collaborate and be active at the same time, using Play as my 1st example.
But enough fun and games, let’s talk about 2 more times when your ANS realizes unconsciously (aka happening so fast, you don’t even know it yet) that you might be in danger, and you need something different from your standard fight/flight or shutdown.
What is Freezing?
What happens when you can’t fight or flight? Or if your ANS knows that you’re in danger, but it just doesn’t know what to do to get you to safety? Then you might freeze in the face of danger. Freezing is an involuntary (meaning it’s not a choice. It’s automatic and instinctive) decision that your autonomic nervous system makes to buy you some time.
Freezing involves both your sympathetic nervous system (think: fight/flight) and your dorsal vagus (think: shutdown/low power mode) to get the right balance of enough energy to get to safety with enough dorsal vagal slow down to make us pause enough to avoid danger and potentially re-group in the moment. Freezing can happen before or after flight/fight as your ANS tries to figure out what to do next to make sure you are safe.
Your activated sympathetic nervous system is what can give you that:
- Alert, but anxious feeling on the inside
- Deep sense of fear
- Shallow breathing
- Sensation that your heart is going to come out of your chest
- Feeling of pent-up energy.
While that dorsal vagus activation at the same can also make you feel:
- Stuck, physically and mentally
- Numb or frozen
- A slowed down heart rate
So you might be asking, “How does this compare to a plain ole dorsal vagal shutdown?” Shutdown/low power mode by itself can make you feel totally disconnected from your emotions and body, make you feel low energy, and, yeah, you can feel stuck too, sure, but remember, dorsal vagus’s shutdown is a last resort kind of response. You know you are freezing when you feel stuck AND you are still looking for a way out deep down. In freeze, you are still trying to get to safety. The freeze response is a means to an end, a checkpoint, a pit stop to safety, whereas shutting down completely is the end, the last ditch effort, the last resort in the face of overwhelming danger.
Freezing as a Valid Survival Strategy
Reminder that, at the end of the day, the body wants to be regulated, wants to survive, and really really wants to be safe. And the freeze response is a valid, tried and true way to avoid danger, to not be exposed to as much trauma, and to return to safety. Think about all the animal videos you’ve seen of animals freezing and/or “playing dead”. Freezing allows our bodies to live to fight another day. If it was not a useful strategy for survival, animals and humans would not still be doing it.
Just like with the other survival responses, people who have experienced traumas could have a lot of experience with freezing. And those experiences could come with feelings of guilt and anger at oneself, shaming yourself and thinking that you should have done more to protect yourself. Remember that the Freeze response is not an active choice you made with your conscious mind. It’s just not. You literally, scientifically, and neurobiologically did not make the call to freeze.
Your ANS decided to press the freeze button before you were even able to fully understand what was going on. Because that’s how scary or threatening the situation was for you. That situation needed that kind of super fast response. And in that moment, your ANS took stock of all the information it had and in a matter of seconds, decided that freezing was the best way to keep you safe. You are alive reading this today thanks to the work your ANS puts in for you.
The point of this somatic series and 1 of the whole purposes of somatic work is to help us understand ourselves, our bodies, and how we connect with each other. Learning to recognize our body’s responses, what it needs, and be able to ask yourself, “Is this behavior serving me right now and if not, what could I do instead when I realize I feel this way?” Learning what your freeze response looks like and how to support and collaborate with your body in getting you to safety is part of this whole process.
What is Fawning?
So what if you’re in a situation where it’s not “acceptable” to fight or flight, freezing isn’t helping you get to safety, and you can’t quite shut down (at least not yet)? Your ANS might decide to fawn for safety instead. Fawning is another involuntary response of pleasing/appeasing others for immediate safety (even if it doesn’t help in the long run).
Same old song with a twist: Your ANS receives cues of danger from the environment and in seconds, before you are fully aware of what’s going on, it decides *this time* that safety means you apologizing, holding your tongue, not setting boundaries, trying to fix people, trying to keep the peace at your own expense, putting too much on your plate to make others’ happy, etc.
The sympathetic nervous system and the dorsal vagus are activated to collaborate to do whatever it takes to smooth things over, even if it means unconsciously imitating a ventral vagal calm state for your immediate survival. In these situations, you are still moving towards safety, but you have less energy running through you because your vagal brake [LINK] is engaged. Your sympathetic nervous system gives you the energy to motivate you and move you to do what needs to be done. And the dorsal vagus steps in to help you calm down enough to figure out what you need to do to make someone else happy so you can avoid the threat of danger and be safe.
Fawning vs People-Pleasing
Fawning, again, is the involuntary survival response that the ANS activates without your awareness to keep you safe in the face of an immediate danger/threat.
People-pleasing describes the behaviors involved in appeasing someone and centering their needs/wants above yours for a purpose.
The fawn survival response does involve engaging in people pleasing behaviors – involuntarily for the purpose of safety and survival.
People pleasing behaviors, in general, are not always involuntary (obviously). There are definitely situations where people intentionally and on purpose choose to engage in people-pleasing behaviors. And these behaviors are not always used in the context of someone’s ANS trying to avoid danger and to get to safety. There are obviously times when people engage in people pleasing behaviors for reasons other than safety like to keep up with social expectations, maintaining power, to avoid accountability, etc.
Fawning and Trauma
Fawning specifically results from chronic/repeated, complex trauma like surviving child abuse/neglect, living under systemic oppressions, etc. Fawning is a survival strategy usually learned early as a child, trying to find safety in unpredictable, unsafe situations by appeasing the adults/guardians who are abusing and/or neglecting them in order to diffuse/deescalate a situation and avoid conflict/danger. And children are not the only ones who fawn. Marginalized people also engage in fawning behaviors in order to survive under systemic oppressions.
In a way, systemic oppressions create the environment for abuse/neglect to thrive even down to an interpersonal-level in our personal and community relationships AND create the environment for fawning as a trauma response to be taught/modeled across generations for collective survival (EG: origins of respectability). Remember though, fawning is involuntary and for the purposes of getting to safety. Anyone with a pattern of actively throwing their own under the bus of systemic oppressions [socialization], especially for power and/or money, is engaging in voluntary behavior.
There were (possibly) times in your life, where you HAD to please/appease someone with more power than you, or you would have been harmed, abused/neglected, or killed. And there may still be times in your life now and in the future where your ANS may rely on fawning in the face of danger to get you back home safely. Facts are facts. Fawning becomes a problem when you find yourself again and again engaging in behaviors that don’t serve you and go against your values.
Like I mentioned here, chronic trauma does damage the vagal brake and reduces its ability to be flexible enough to manage intense emotions without shutting down. What that can look like is even relatively small conflicts and moments of discomfort feeling like huge crises to a nervous system that’s been through a lot of repeated, complex trauma. So someone might find themself becoming overwhelmed quickly, and then their ANS decides to fawn for safety when maybe another strategy could have actually been more beneficial in the long run.
The strategies that worked for us to survive our childhoods, etc. aren’t always still good fits for our adult lives. Part of accountability is growing and nurturing an awareness of old patterns of behaviors, checking to see if these old patterns of behavior still benefit you and the people in your life, and then making the moves to change if they no longer serve you.
Long term use of fawning as a survival response can lead to:
- Poor boundaries
- Ignoring/neglecting your own needs
- Neglecting your identity
- Holding emotions in that will burst out in other areas of your life
- Community relationship issues.
You might think, “Pierre, if fawning is an involuntary response, what can I possibly do about it?” Honestly, great question. Remember, neuroception (the nervous system’s ability to sense what’s going on in the outside world without your conscious awareness)? Learning your nervous system and being in relationship with your body is part of the work needed to your ANS’s unconscious decisions to your active, conscious awareness. You need to be aware of what your nervous system is doing when you are triggered into a fawn state and recognize what it feels like in your body, so you can break those patterns of behavior. Somatic work changes neural pathways and builds brain tissue so you *can* change and move in different ways over time with practice.
Thanks for reading. The next part is gonna get real chill. I’m covering the last examples of times when 2 parts of your ANS collaborate: Stillness and Awe.