Home Childhood Sexual Abuse The trauma response of Freeze-Fawn, as an abuse survivor.
trauma response of freeze-fawn -- surviving my past

The trauma response of Freeze-Fawn, as an abuse survivor.

by Matt Pappas

Understanding our responses to trauma and why we react in the way that we do, leads to greater understanding of ourselves. The way that we respond to stressful situations now can often be traced back to events that happened in the past; years and even decades later.

Essentially, the way that we responded to trauma before, can affect how we respond to stress now.

There are 4 basic defensive structures, or responses to a traumatic event: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn (The 4 F’s, as Pete Walker describes).

Each of us is different based on how we were raised, the varying types of trauma we endured,  how we view ourselves, birth order,  and many other factors which can make up who we are and what we are about. Of course these factors also help determine our default responses and what of the 4 F’s we are.

I’ll be referencing some of Pete’s book throughout this post because it’s such an amazing resource, and led to an immense amount of understanding after I read though it. I highly recommend, “Complex PTSD, from Surviving to Thriving.”

When I first became aware that I was a survivor and I learned about the 4 F’s , I thought of myself immediately as a “Flight”.  I had known of Fight or Flight before, but at the time I hadn’t realized that were more than those two alone.  Once I began to dive deep into what each of these truly mean, and that were more than just the initial two reactions, it opened up a whole new world of self-awareness and understanding.

After much research, working with a therapist, and my own self-assessment, it was evident that I engage in neither Fight nor Flight, but rather a hybrid of two additional “F’s”, Freeze and Fawn. So that makes me a Trauma Response type of Freeze-Fawn.

Pete Walker’s book breaks down what all 4 trauma responses are, and I encourage you to check it out for not only Freeze and Fawn, but also for great insight on Fight or Flight. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the Freeze-Fawn response.

Here’s a brief break down of the Freeze and Fawn trauma responses:

Freeze: Many “freeze” types unconsciously believe that people and danger are synonymous, and that safety lies in solitude*.  Basically if confronted with a stressful situation, we are unable to Fight or Run, so we just Freeze and often Dissociate on the spot. So rather than put ourselves through that, we just try to avoid it altogether.  *The freeze response, also known as the camouflage response, often triggers the individual into hiding, isolating and eschewing human contact as much as possible.

Fawn: Trying to talk your way out of a stressful situation. Rather than Fight, Run, or Freeze on the spot, we decide to reason or rationalize the situation. This can be anything from flattering the abuser, cringing in obedience, attempting to please and seek favor, offering alternatives; doing whatever we have to do to save ourselves by talking our way out.

Freeze-Fawn is a common hybrid response to stress for many abuse survivors. Again, everyone is different and there is no right or wrong defensive response to trauma. “We are who we are”, and that’s okay!

Trigger Warning: Be kind to yourself as you read on; I will recount some specific times of my abuse and my thoughts during those events. 

As survivors, we were groomed to not fight back. Possibly either because the abuser threatened us, someone we know, or even our family pets with physical harm if we ever told anyone what was happening. By that very threat, we can be immediately traumatized and unable to fight back, run away, or confide in anyone for fear of repercussions. Especially as children, who are very easily influenced by those they feel they can trust.

That broken trust, which may have happened in an instant the first time the abuse took place, can stick with us well into adulthood. A child’s mind is so impressionable at a  young age, and a learned response of “keep your mouth shut or I’ll make sure you regret it” is unbelievably traumatizing.

It doesn’t have to just be in the form of threats though, for example my abuser didn’t threaten me or someone I know with bodily injury, but trauma response of freeze-fawn - surviving my past - memehe did threaten me by playing on my need to fit in, my desire to have friends, and be with cool kids who would protect me. He knew that I loved his little blue mini-bike, and so he also threatened to not take me for rides anymore if I ever told anyone. Then there’s the, “everybody does it, it’s what cool kids do” speech that he gave me every time I tried to resist or if he felt like I needed to be reminded of who was in charge and how important his needs were.

Let’s not forget about Dissociation either; during trauma our minds took us away from being fully, emotionally present as a way to protect us from what was happening. Looking back, every time he abused me, I can see where I was Dissociating and freezing on the spot, just waiting for it to end.

As you can see, a Freeze response of just going with the flow, blending in, not letting on that anything was wrong was a learned response to trauma.

What about Fawn; this is where I also default too, in combination with  Freeze. I didn’t fight or run, but I would freeze and dissociate, or sometimes I would try to talk my way out of it.

I can remember times when I would try to reason with my abuser by saying things like: “Can’t I just go now, I promise I’ll come back and stay longer next time”. “I won’t say a word, I promise!” or “It really hurts, please let me go and I promise to be tougher next time and not cry”.

I tried to use every angle and reason that my mind would offer at such a young age, but to no avail. I can’t honestly say that I recall any of those tactics actually working, but it’s all I could do, so that’s what I did. Even now, recalling these memories, it’s important to not shame myself for what I wasn’t capable of handling back then.

As a child, I was quite analytical, and a very complex thinker, and that has followed me through to adulthood. While that does serve me well at times; such as in my current career, it also has its downside. Being an over thinker is emotionally draining, as is trying to prepare for every situation before it happens, or talk my way out of a stressful situation. It definitely takes a toll on you, and if you are an over thinker, you can relate I’m sure.

Perhaps you are a Freeze-Fawn as well, or maybe you react differently. There is no right or wrong way, as we are all unique and that’s okay. I would love to hear your thoughts on what you feel your responses are. As always, I encourage you to leave comments or contact me directly anytime.

-Matt

*The 4 F’s, Trauma Topology – Pete Walker

Pictures courtesy of Pixabay. Social Media images created by Matt Pappas using Canva. 

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12 comments

Chrissie (Young At ?Heart) March 9, 2017 - 9:55 am

Yes Matt I understand everything that you write here, but the four F’s with me I seem to use all of them. At different times and situations, my F reactions vary my last fight response was when I had to go to a meeting with my employers. I was in fight mode in the meeting and could not come down from it for about a week.

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Matt March 9, 2017 - 1:22 pm

I absolutely understand what you mean Chrissie. There are times that, even though I’m a Freeze-Fawn, that I do end up in Fight mode. Although not often, it does happen. I believe there is alittle bit of all 4 F’s in all of us, even though we often default to 1 or 2 of them.

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mindbodythoughts March 26, 2017 - 11:31 am

It all seems familiar to me. Most of the time, I could not fight back because if I did, things only got much worse. I could not run, because there was no where to run too. I learned to try to read the signs and avoid things at all costs, but most of the time that only worked in my mind. Ultimately I ended up just disconnecting from what was going on as if I was watching a horror movie taking place. That is the ultimate part of healing is to be and stay present when moments become frightening and uncertain for me. I know I’m not alone in that one..

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Piou September 18, 2017 - 9:01 pm

I recognize a lot of myself in the freeze-fawn response; I avoid people at all costs, try and be invisible when I feel like there is no escape at the moment, overthink, overthink, overthink… If I have no choice but to interact with someone, I will be overly nice just to ensure I don’t displease them in any way (displeasing abusers meant punishment). And if some unhealthy aggressive person decides that they want to be my friend (impose their “friendship” on me), I just become a codependant mess out of desperation like «OMG someone wants to be my friend, I should take it because it might not come around again!» I don’t know, it’s just weird. I used to blame myself for this and think I was weird but now I realize it’s not uncommon and that shame won’t help in any way.

I find it sad that people who had so much influence over our lives and knew their power abused it in this way.

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Matt Pappas September 18, 2017 - 9:30 pm

Hi Piou,

I know exactly what you mean. I was this way too, for a long time. In fact there are times when I still struggle with allowing a person to become close, who I know is not healthy. Part of me wants to embrace that friendship just because they took notice to me. Then I catch myself and realize, “hey wait a minute, this is not going to serve me. This is not going to be healthy and I can’t afford to be dragged down by them”.

You are definitely not alone my friend, and I tell you as a FREEZE/FAWN myself, there is hope. It’s a tough road to heal but man is it sooooo worth it. You can do it!

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Y June 2, 2018 - 8:35 pm

So, if you’re still involved with and even relying on toxic family members for survival (like, so traumatized and poorly adjusted that I can barely function in the adult world), how do you go towards healing?

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Frankie July 11, 2018 - 9:11 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. Alot of this resonated with me, and I have always known that a big part of my response to intimate relationship violence was freeze. I had never heard of fawn which accurately described – for me – the precursor to the freeze response. My (ex) partner was physically bigger, stronger and fitter than me, which rendered both fight and flight responses useless when dealing with an aggressive and sometimes violent outburst. I would attempt to talk my way out of things, rationalise the situation, calm the present environment. When this got tedious and tiring, with no statement, question, physical gesture being able to prove my point I would often resort to the freeze response, dissociation would take over. This was often not helpful for the situation either but after a physically and emotionally gruelling fight or argument, often lasting for hours it is the only thing my body could muster. Eventually things would end and a great calm would emanate. I was finally able to leave, but again I had to use survival tactics to make sure this worked – suggestibility, promises and when I finally felt safe an accurate account of my intentions of not returning to the relationship.
This has been a long process, one that I am still recovering from but I encourage everyone who has been, or is currently in a traumatic situation to remind themselves of the strength it has taken them to endure whatever they have been through, and attempt to use that strength and will to get them to safety. You are not alone, and neither should you have to face this situation alone – that is where the danger lies. There are many people out there, if not friends or family, but authorities and organisations whose sole purpose is to help you remain safe and healthy.

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fae nadine December 10, 2018 - 4:23 am

fae issa freeze-fawn as well @_@

I was a victim of sexual physical mental emotional and spiritual abuse as a child from about 4 to 16…

this summer I was reclassified from being bpd to cptsd
and also have read Peter Walker’s book ♡

to say I am a little unnerved at reading your story is an understatement @_@
the details are different
but responses are identical
I lived inna dissociated state for years

I recently had my live-in girlfriend take her own life…
and I’ve been struggling deeply
as a single mother I am trying everything I can to keep my head above water

I stumbled across your page because I think my most self destructive behaviors stem from my freeze default
neglect
avoidance
procrastination
I’d like to think there issa way out of this labyrinth

it makes me happy to see one of our kind doing well ♡
healing and growing and sharing your learnings ♡

*hugs n loves*
fae nadine ♡

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Timothy J. Verret April 25, 2019 - 6:14 pm

I definitely have the freeze/fawn response as my defaults. Childhood priest sexual abuse was just the start of what was to come which included intense bullying in school and 19 failed suicide attempts (two ending in carbon monoxide poisoning that brought about two house fires), having to rehome three of my dogs which damn near killed me, and a recent car accident that nearly killed me (sometimes I wish it had). I’m reading Pete Walker’s book, particularly where he talks about “healthy rage” toward our caretakers. I can’t bring myself to be “rageful” or angry at my family (mom, dad, older brother); I just wish they would go away and leave me be so I can die without guilt. I am especially in freeze. I can barely do my job and I just stare into space in my residence for many hours on end. I have tried EVERY depression and anxiety medication there, had ECT twice (first time helped, second time with two many memory problems), TMS which did help, and now embarking on possible treatment with ketamine if my insurance approves it. Really afraid I will do myself in which would kill my mom and possibly destroy my family, even though it’s clear being raised in my family was destruction for me as far as sense of self. I have accomplished much in my life: Got my BA in Drama from U.T Austin and was a successful actor (now, I couldn’t imagine returning to the stage in the shape I’m in), forming Chain Free Austin which successfully passed an ordinance to end dog chaining, publisher of plays and sonnets and a children’s story, etc. How can someone who had just successes be left to be a “frozen ghost.” That’s how it feels…like I died in the car accident and/or the multiple traumas all occurring withing a 2-3 year span. it’s been the one-year anniversary from my car accident. I often wish I hadn’t survived it. Thanks for letting me vent. Certainly I’m not alone???

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Reply
Kris October 30, 2019 - 6:01 pm

I am a survivor and just learned about freeze-fawn in training for local sexual assault hotline. I woke up to the assailant “friend” already in the midst of the action and it seemed to happen so fast. Though I remember trying to understand “what is happening right now, what to do?” And it was over. Then I thought (overthinker) that I might as well do it again of my own choosing and let it happen again, which it did. I feel so much shame. I was at school and for self preservation befriended this person and acted as if it was all okay. We were in the same social circle and due to his popularity I believed no one would ever believe I was assaulted. I wasn’t even sure myself that was what happened — the R word. He was well respected by many and I thought there must have been a misunderstanding because he was such a good and polite person. I’ve blamed myself and made excuses for him, eg he was also drunk. I do not understand myself or know if I fit into freeze or fawn….

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