Wild animals are really really good at self-regulation. Their survival kinda depends on it. If they were stuck in a shutdown state, they would be easy prey.
Humans aren't wild animals, obviously. Except for toddlers. So what's with the difference in self-regulation capacity and what do humans do to prevent the natural process of self-regulation? And for those that need me to say so -
Am I suggesting that environment isn't a factor in one's self-regulation? No, of course not.
Am I suggesting that people should just be able to decide to self-regulate? Nope.
Am I suggesting that traumatized people are to blame for their state? Uhhhh no.
The purpose of this blog in particular is to discuss what the individual does to keep themselves in a stuck defensive state. This is a non-exhaustive list. Add your own thoughts in the comments!
I. Keeping secrets
Wild animals don't do this. They actually do the opposite. When something is even potentially wrong, they let the surrounding wild animals know about it. Whether through loud shrills or tense muscles, they communicate potential danger. And even after the fact, after they have survived a predatory attack, a mammal will return to their herd or family and seek safety.
I'd imagine that they would communicate what happened if they could. I think at the very least, wild animals communicate in their own way that they need safety and connection. They don't come back to the herd with shame, do they? They simply seek safety and are welcomed and protected.
Humans beings keep things secret. I don't think it's a conscious choice. And again, this is not an issue of blame. It's simply the reality for many individuals who are stuck in a defensive state. That person might be the victim of abuse. And they keep the secret due to a threat the predator is making toward them or someone else (or themselves). Or they keep the secret because their support circle is simply not supportive, doesn't believe them or lashes out against them for speaking up.
But someone could also keep a secret because of the shame that they feel. They can't bring themselves to disclose to someone else what happened or is happening. Or maybe they keep the secret because they don't want to face the vulnerability of disclosure. Or simply thinking about whatever it is is unbearable.
Keeping a secret doesn't have to translate directly to some sort of specific event. It could also just refer to generally keeping feelings within. Not sharing with others but also not even acknowledging to the self. Keeping the feelings/thoughts/memories/somatic sensations as hidden as possible.
So why does keeping secrets ensure someone stays stuck? Because the individual is not allowing the stuck energy to mobilize and seek help. Their autonomic nervous system stays in a state of danger. What it needs to do is to utilize the stuck defensive energy to find help. And hopefully, their requests for help will be heard by someone that then can use their own sympathetic energy to make something happen. Or their own ventral activation to be a co-regulator. Or both.
This is similar to the first.
See, we're social creatures. We need each other. Humans need each other to co-regulate on an interpersonal level. This co-regulation helps to foster self-regulation on an individual level. When we survive something potentially traumatic, it's extremely important that we have safe connections with safe others. These safe others provide co-regulation to help the survivor to climb their own polyvagal ladder and back into their own safety state.
When we isolate, the potential to climb our polyvagal ladders is minimized. I know some of us need some solitude to recharge (me!), but that's not what I'm talking about here. I mean isolate. When someone keeps to themselves and cuts others off.
Being alone is generally a cue of danger. Again, we're social. We generally do better with safe environments and safe others. Belonging is not uniquely human. All mammals need to belong to a group and we're no different. But we're the only ones that isolate.
This is especially true of the dorsal vagal shutdown state. There's a deep feeling of loneliness. And there's an impulse to confine oneself. My more depressed clients often share similar pieces of the puzzle - staying in their rooms, wanting to be alone, laying in bed. Maybe a small light on or sun coming in through the closed blinds. They feel tired but never get enough rest.
And I think the impulse to fulfill this scene has a lot of truth in it. The body is saying something about what it needs: safety, security, predictability, low stimulation. But my clients are detached from the impulses of their body and the significance of it. So they perpetually repeat this scene day after day. Part of the problem is the disembodiment. Part of the problem is the thoughts they have around this (more on that in part IV). But part of the problem is cutting off others that can act as co-regulators (if they have them).
III. Behavior adaptations
The autonomic nervous naturally wants to self-regulate. It naturally wants to release the stuck defensive energy and gain more access to the safe and social biological pathways. From there, the mammalian body can optimize its use of bodily resources.
But when humans feel that defensive energy lingering in their system, they do something to get some temporary relief. Especially as it builds in intensity. That's called a "behavioral adaptation." Generally, we do minor things like grind our teeth, pick cuticles or shake our legs. We also engage in more serious behavioral adaptations, like substance use, hair picking or overeating.
That individual does not have the vagal brake strength to tolerate the stuck defensive energy, so they engage in these behaviors for some relief. No,. these behaviors don't actually help in the long run. It's a short term benefit. They probably make life more difficult and have larger consequences. But in the short term, they serve their purpose.
Rather than doing these behaviors that divert the stuck defensive energy, we need to build the vagal brake strength to tolerate the energy and allow it do return or discharge. To do so, we need to activate the ventral vagal pathways more and more. My Building Safety Anchors course teaches you how to do so in 30 days of small steps. Learning and practicing how to activate those safety pathways to get more in the present moment and build the tolerance for the stuck defensive energy.
I've got a deeper look into behavioral adaptations in this episode of Stuck Not Broken.
IV. Creating Stories
Humans have the capacity to build complex language. And with complex language comes complex ideas, reasoning, excuse making and stuff we just kinda make up. When it comes to being stuck, we create "stories" which can be one more of these things.
First, we need to understand the concept of "Story follows state" from Deb Dana. Basically, the thoughts that we have in our head are directly related to and stemming from the polyvagal state that we are in. So the same situation can elicit different thoughts ("stories") from us depending on what state we are in. The conscious mind is attempting to make sense of the polyvagal state.
Someone stuck in a shutdown state is going to have thoughts about how worthless they are (they're not worthless, btw). Someone stuck in a fight sympathetic state is going to have thoughts about what a jerk someone else is. Both of these thoughts are there because of the polyvagal state and the stuck defensive energy. If these individuals were to climb their polyvagal ladders, their thoughts would change.
But these thoughts also serve the unintentional consequence of keeping that person in their stuck defensive state. Instead of focusing on their thoughts of worthless, the shutdown individual could instead focus on the experience of worthlessness in relation to their bodies. As in, where they feel that feeling. What it feels like, what it looks like, what texture it has and how long it wants to stick around. Once more attuned with their somatic experiences, the ladder climbing can begin.
Human beings shame and judge themselves. You do. I do. We all do. Animals don't do that. Yes, they can feel shame. But it's not a self-directed shame toward the self.
V. We feel fear with polyvagal state shifts
I know, I know. None of this is all that easy whatsoever. It takes time, it takes practice. It takes patience.
One of the problems with all of this ladder climbing stuff is the experience of the ladder climbing stuff. It's intense. And if you don't know what to expect and you're not ready for that inner stuff you have going on, fear is going to be involved. Fear that accompanies the returning or discharging sympathetic energy.
Ideally, the individual has built their vagal brake strength and is able to pendulate and titrate the defensive energy. Instead of a fear response, the defensive energy will be met with curiosity, acceptance and relief. Not temporary relief through a behavioral adaptation. But the relief one gets from actual discharge. Waves of sympathetic energy coursing through the system. Shame expunging itself. The ability to smile and feel grateful for the release that has just occurred.
Not easy, but doable. Eventually.
Next blog I will release a blog on what humans do to keep each other stuck. It'll be the sort of inverse of this one from a social level.
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