Explaining our danger response

I have previously discussed the fawn response in a blog, but I want to go back and explain in more detail the five stages of the danger response. Our brains have a large number of danger responses. The responses activate different parts of our nervous system and have different effects on our ability to cope with a perceived threat.

I will start at the top of the brain. This response is referred to by many names. It is often called the mammalian response because it is part of the higher order functions of the brain that are only seen in mammals. It is also referred to as the ventral vagus response because the ventral portion of the vagus nerve, which is the last cranial nerve, is the nerve activated in this response. This is also referred to as the Safe and Social response.

When a person faces a threat the first thing their brain considers is “Can I protect myself through authentic connection with others?”. If the answer is yes, the person will seek out others for support. They may look around for a look or word of reassurance from another person. They may cry, which will bring another person to them for support. They may seek another person out for a hug.

If the person’s brain decides they cannot protect themselves through authentic connection with another person, it will move to the next response. In this response a part of the nervous system known as the sympathetic nervous system is activated. This response is most commonly referred to as the flight response.

In this response the brain considers “Can I protect myself from this threat by running away? If the answer is yes, the person will run away from the threat. They will actually leave, either by running away or making an excuse to leave.

If the person’s brain decides they cannot protect themselves by running it may ask the question “Can I protect myself from this threat by being assertive and addressing the threat head on, or by more stringent means?” If the answer is yes, the person will stay and try to defend themselves. This may look like them being calm and assertive (not necessarily that calm inside!) or, if assertiveness is not working, it may look like the person being angry and possibly using physical actions to defend themselves. This response is known as the fight response.

If the response of the brain is that it is not possible to protect the person by staying and fighting it will move to the next response. Here the brain is beginning to activate the dorsal part of the vagus nerve. The response is known as the fawn response and the brain consideration is “Can I protect myself by suppressing my true self?” If the answer is yes, the person will try to placate the other person. They may go along with whatever the other person is saying. They may be apologetic. They may be totally submissive to the other person.

If the person’s brain decides the fawn response will not protect them the dorsal vagus nerve will swing into full activation and they will enter the freeze response. The question the brain has answered here is “Can I protect myself by shutting down, disconnecting or collapsing?” The person affected by the freeze response may collapse, they may remain upright by become totally unresponsive, they may appear to be far away and not respond to anything that is said to them. When a person disconnects they actually dissociate. In short, their mind goes somewhere else. This is very common with abused children. They are rarely able to escape the abusive adult and will disconnect. We all have the capacity to dissociate, some more than others. We may even find we do this in adulthood.

With the exception of the Mammalian or safe and social danger response, the danger responses are actions of the brain that is outside conscious control. Once into the Sympathetic and dorsal vagal activation you cannot control what you are doing. That can be scary for you and hard for other people observing. You may feel you are a bad person for reacting that way but you don’t choose that reaction. Nor can you control it. You may find other people being judgemental because they do not understand this reaction is not your choice. This lack of control is sometimes known as “flipping your lid”.

It is possible to bring things under control. When I work with people who have suffered trauma we address ways to manage these reactions and I teach people how to understand triggers and signs that these reactions are about to happen.

We do not have to be slaves to our danger responses. We can learn to manage them and heal.

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