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Understanding Neuroception and the Fawn Response

What Is Neuroception?

Neuroception refers to the neural process that scans the environment for safety or threat. It operates beneath our conscious awareness, scanning for cues that indicate potential danger or safety. Neuroscientist Stephen Porges coined the term “neuroception” to describe how our nervous system evaluates risk in the environment.

The Polyvagal Theory

According to Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, we have three neural circuits that influence our sense of safety or threat: the ventral vagal complex, sympathetic nervous system, and dorsal vagal complex. The ventral vagal complex is associated with social engagement and a sense of safety. The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes fight or flight behaviors. The dorsal vagal complex is linked to immobilization and can inhibit the ability to socially engage and self-soothe.

Neuroceptive Capacities

Our neuroceptive capacities develop from infancy and are shaped by early experiences. When a child's environment feels safe, nurturing, and predictable; the ventral vagal complex develops in a healthy way. This enables capacities like connection, curiosity, creativity, and calm. However, if a child experiences chronic threat then the sympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagal complex become overactive. This can limit social engagement and self-regulation while increasing hypervigilance, reactivity, and anxiety.

Introducing the Fawn Response

The fawn response is the modern adaptation of a survival response for humans. When experiencing the fawn response, an individual will attempt to appease the perceived threat by complying with its demands. This is done in the hopes of avoiding harm. The fawn response often develops in childhood in an attempt to manage or avoid another person(s)' dysregulated nervous system.

How the Fawn Response Develops

Children learn from an early age that pleasing and catering to the needs of their emotionally dysregulated caregivers is necessary to avoid harm. Children who lack a secure attachment to their primary caregivers fail to develop a sense of safety and trust. Without this foundation, they become hypervigilant to potential threats and dangers in their environment. The child fears that failure to please their caregivers will result in abandonment, withdrawal of affection, or other punishment. They become excessively attuned to the emotional states of others and respond with fawning behavior to ensure their needs are met.

The Fawn Response May Manifest As:

  • Difficulty saying no or setting clear boundaries.

  • Strong desire to make others happy even at your own expense.

  • Anxiety about expressing disagreement or anger.

  • Tendency to ignore your own needs in favor of caring for others.

  • Difficulty accepting compliments or praise.

  • Feeling responsible for other people's feelings or moods.

Self-Compassion is Key


The first step to managing hypervigalance and/or the fawn response is developing awareness of people-pleasing tendencies. Notice the situations that activate your fawn response and how you feel in your body. Often there is anxiety, fear or discomfort. With practice, you can catch yourself starting to fawn and choose a different response.

Set Boundaries

People-pleasers often struggle to set healthy boundaries. One of the most impactful lessons I have ever learned is that 'No' is a full sentence. You do not owe someone an explanation, even though you may have been conditioned to believe you do. You can also say something like, “I wish I could but I have to pass this time.” Start with small boundaries and build up your assertiveness over time. Having strong boundaries will reduce feelings of resentment and burnout.

Notice Unhelpful Self-Talk

Notice unhelpful thoughts about yourself and try to adopt a more self-compassionate inner dialogue. Affirmations like “My needs and feelings matter” can help over time. Sometimes you might have to 'fake it to you make it' because there's a good chance you do not actually believe that right now. Speaking to yourself with kindness and empathy can help shift automatic fawning behaviors.

Take Space When Needed

If you feel yourself becoming resentful or depleted from chronic fawning, take some space for yourself. Even taking five minutes out of your day can make a difference. Connecting with nature can be really helpful as well. Taking regular time for yourself will recharge your batteries so you can respond to others from a place of genuine care and compassion.


LEPERA, N. (2023). How to be the love you seek. HARPERWAVE.

Lindathai. (n.d.).

Porges, S. W. (2022). Polyvagal theory: a science of safety. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 16, 27.

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