11 thoughts on “The ‘Please’ Response to Threat: A Social Engagement System Survival Strategy

  1. Suzanne

    Interesting discussion. I’ve heard of the “tend and befriend” response which I think is synonymous with what you are describing in the social engagement system stress response. I wonder about the extent to which oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) affects our reactions and whether concepts like “trauma bonding” can be explained through this lens. The quote you shared highlighted something that I hadn’t considered, which is whether the placating is a more advanced, frontal lobe process of empathy, or a less nuanced conditioned series of responses most likely to defuse the situation.

    Reply
    1. Penny Heiple, Three Principles Healing Post author

      Yes, interesting thoughts! “Tend and befriend” is a social engagement system response, and I think the trauma bonding is also, and not necessarily healthy in the long term. Oxytocin is the hormone of the healthy mode of social engagement system but interesting thoughts about how it could be involved in nuanced ways. Thanks for your comments!

      Reply
  2. Shin Shin

    Thanks so much for writing about this topic – there is precious little information available! I’ve also been mulling this over for years. I think because the trauma theories are proposed mostly by men, brilliant though some of them are, they overlook the importance of the tend and befriend/please response.

    Reply
  3. Cheryl

    Just my thoughts. Wonder why no one explores which part of the brain is involved with social engagement and which part in the fawn response. Surely there must different processes involved. The fawn response is repressive while the social engagement is expressive. One is harmful to the other is beneficial to our minds and bodies. According to studies the cancer type of personality is a fawner.

    Reply
    1. Penny Heiple, Three Principles Healing Post author

      Interesting thoughts, Cheryl. I would stay that while the fawn response doesn’t generally work as well for us as adults, it did work well as children in to help us manage and get through the situation we were in at the time. And actually it can still work in some ways for us. I find it’s helpful to bring appreciation rather than animosity to our survival (threat) responses, as they are actually quite intelligent, even if they are no longer appropriate in the current context. If met with appreciation and curiosity, they can begin to let go.

      It’s a very interesting question about what parts of the brain are engaged when we are socially engaged vs. when we are in the “fawn” threat response. I’m curious too!

      Reply
  4. Phil

    Hello Penny,

    Thank you very much for your insightful article about the fawn response. I have a question for you. I follow your reasoning that the fawn response begins as a stressful/dysfunctional response from the ventral vagus nerve because fawn does try to relate to the person.

    I have a nagging feeling that the sympathetic nervous system is also involved. Fawn is manipulative, so I understand why you say fawn originates in ventral vagal.

    Do you have any comments that fawn also can have a sympathetic component?

    Thank you again for your great article.

    Reply
    1. Penny Heiple, Three Principles Healing Post author

      Hi Phil, this is such a thoughtful and insightful question! I’d love to hear more why you are thinking the sympathetic branch could be involved in the please/fawn response… I’m intrigued! I certainly could not claim to know “the truth” one way or the other, but I will say that the main aspect which makes me think it is a social nervous system response is that it is manipulative in quite a complex and “relational” way, meaning the person has to actually learn and adapt and “feel into” how the other is responding and acting in order to effectively “please” them. The sympathetic branch’s stress response seems a bit more straightforward to me, in that it preps the body for fight or flight and in so doing effectively shuts down relational skills and the pre-frontal cortex in the process. That’s my thinking anyway… again, I’d love to hear more from you and your thinking on this.

      Reply
  5. Phil

    Hello Penny,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and generous reply to my question. I fully agree with your answer of the fawn response being from ventral vagal. Previously I didn’t have an image of what dysfunction from ventral vagal would be. I had previously thought of ventral vagal as being only functional. The fawn response can easily be seen as maladaptive (if used in a way that keeps us small) relational action.

    I can be projecting myself into my inquiry of whether the flight response is involved in fawn. My primary 4 F response is flight and I also am a fawn person too. Of course, freeze and fight can also come up. 😉

    What an adventure to be human!

    Thank you for helping me on my journey,
    Phil

    Reply
  6. Phil

    Hello Penny,

    I’m following up on our exchange. I just read in wikipedia about ventral vagal. It said: “The polyvagal theory calls this [the ventral vagus nerve] the “smart vagus” because it associates it with the regulation of sympathetic “fight or flight” behaviors by way of social affiliative behaviors.”

    This bit of information goes along with the inkling that I had about the sympathetic nerve having some part in the fawn response.

    Thanks again for your time and help,
    Phil

    Reply
    1. Penny Heiple, Three Principles Healing Post author

      Hi Phil! Yes indeed, in my understanding, the social nervous system (ventral vagal complex), when engaged in its healthy response, does down-regulate the stress responses of both the sympathetic branch and the parasympathetic branch of the ANS. This is why re-engaging the social nervous system in its healthy functioning (i.e., building the capacity for healthy relating) is so important in working with trauma responses.

      Reply

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