Self-Protection is Biologically Good!

June 6, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist

Protective instincts are good. They are God-given. They keep human beings alive. Protective impulses can go into overdrive, though, and when that happens, non-productive behaviors can occur. When others see these behaviors, they may judge them as maladaptive, bad, or even morally wrong. Upon further examination, however, it becomes apparent that the behaviors are a biologically correct response to protective impulses.

What kind of behaviors might be responses to protective instincts? Basic responses are fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (Frothingham, 2021). These are the result of physiological reactions to stress, danger, and fear. Fight might look like punching someone, or it might look like more passive yelling, name-calling, or other use of derogatory words or behaviors to fend off the threat. Flight can look like running away, whether physically or mentally. Running might mean going into a room and closing a door. It can also look like avoidance and dissociation. Freeze can mean literally freezing, and/or shutdown. In some, blood pressure may drop and the person can even faint. The fawn response tries to please the attacker so as to remain alive. This usually results from an abusive situation and occurs when an individual will do or say anything, even at harm to themselves or in opposition to their own values. When there is an actual, real threat, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn result in good behaviors. They can help individuals fight off attackers, run out of a burning building, stop before stepping under a tree whose branch has just cracked, or temporarily pacify a kidnapper in order to make time to plot an escape or wait for rescue. No one ever wants to experience dangerous or scary situations, but the reality is that life has them. The body is equipped to handle them.

A tendency to see and readily remember negative content is also a protective impulse. The brain wants the body to stay safe (Cherry, 2020). The brain remembers the hot stove because it does not want the hand to get burned again. It remembers the dangerous intersection because it wants to avoid injury to the body in a repeat car crash. It remembers an argument in which names were called because it wants to avoid emotional pain. Recognizing and acknowledging the negative is important to staying alive.

Struggles arise when brains stay in protective mode. No one likes to be physically harmed. Adults do not want children to run away anytime they hear someone yelling. Shutting down results in poor performance at work and school. Fawning can result in compromise of values. Negativity bias can turn into pessimism and ungratefulness. Relationships can suffer harm when behaviors initiated from the protective brain constantly occur. Staying in fight/flight/freeze mode is stressful and wearing on the body.

What is the remedy for an over-active protective brain? There is no quick fix, but healing generally involves connection and choice. The opposite of protection is connection (Gobbel, 2020c). When the brain is not busy trying to fend off danger, it is busy trying to relate to other humans in order to gather resources to live life, and live life well. The more the brain experiences connection, the more it can have felt-safety and begin to perceive what is real threat, and what is negativity bias towards a threat that no longer is really a danger (Gobbel, 2020b). The more the brain can form new neuropathways involving safety and regulation. Behaviors are not maladaptive. They make sense. When we see them in that light, we can approach their causes, and at that level, we can begin to make a difference.


Cherry, K. (2020, April 29). What is the negativity bias? Very Well Mind.

Frothingham, M.B. (2021, October 6). Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn: What this response means.

Gobbel, R. (2020a, February 21). No behavior is maladaptive.

Gobbel, R. (2020b, September 14). Felt-safety? What’s that?

Gobbel, R. (2020c, December 17). Connection or protection???