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Connect to Survive: Appeasement Replaces Stockholm Syndrome via Polyvagal Theory

The Polyvagal Theory has three brand new additions to the mixed states: intimacy, fawning, and appeasement. I'll discuss appeasement in this edited podcast transcript.

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Dr. Stephen Porges (creator of the Polyvagal Theory) has a new book - Our Polyvagal World. Actually, his son, Seth, wrote the book, and Dr Porges gave it his stamp of approval. (I'll do a book review soon.) For now, I do recommend it overall, and you can order it through this Amazon affiliate link. I get a portion of the sale at no extra cost to you -

The new book discusses the application of the Polyvagal theory to various life domains like incarceration and schools. But it also adds three new mixed states to the Polyvagal Theory, which are: intimacy, fawn, and appeasement. Appeasement is also discussed by Rebecca Bailey, Jaycee Dugard, Stephanie Smith, and Dr. Porges in a paper called "Appeasement: Replacing Stockholm Syndrome as a Definition of a Survival Strategy."

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What is Appeasement through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory?

The basic idea is that appeasement is a sort of co-regulatory mixed state. When in the face of extreme danger, like in a hostage situation, I think the isolation aspect of this is really important.

Appeasement through the Polyvagal Theory lens is conceptualized as more of a replacement for Stockholm Syndrome. We should view appeasement as a two way neuro-biological interaction. The "Appeasement" paper calls it a "super social engagement." This is the ability to use social interaction, even in extreme, dangerous situations.

Appeasement as a "Super social engagement"?

Even though it's called a "super social engagement," it seems to me to be more of a function of de-escalation. I don't think appeasement results in actual co-regulation with the end result of the perpetrator actually accessing their safety state fully. The perpetrator does not actually feel compassion, or at least not enough to change their horrific behaviors.

Though perhaps not full co-regulative safety state, there may be enough co-regulation to result in de-escalation. This neutralies the defensive state of the perpetrator. Or neutralizes it enough to reduce the potential for harm or death to the captor that is appeasing.

Appeasement is seen in other mammals.

Appeasement actually is something that we see in other mammals as well. The Cleveland Clinic says that one theory of appeasement is as "a learned technique, passed down from our ancestors. In the early civilization, there was always a risk of being captured or killed by another social group. Bonding with captors increases the chance of survival."

The Polyvagal Theory argues that appeasement is a result of neuroceptive shifts in threat detection. The shifts trigger autonomic states, resulting in the appeasement of a captor. These shifts are a part of our DNA; and appeasement is one potential result, though it is not overtly common in extreme situations. But it is a possibility.

alone in the dark

Appeasement: Connect to Survive.

Porges' appeasement article says that "social connection to the perpetrator may be experienced as a type of lifeline." When it comes to looking at this as like a biological process, or a neuro-biological interaction between two mammals, ee should look at the benefit of connection, even if it is an extreme situation.

Mammalian bodies do better when they have more access to their ventral vagal safety state. When the safety state is active, there is more capacity for homeostasis, which is basically utilizing our body's resources for health, growth, and restoration. So simply connecting with somebody, even in a situation like this, may have better results for using bodily resources. The benefit of appeasement is not simply survival, but also homeostatic functioning.

Appeasement is not a choice.

So I wouldn't view this as a choice-driven behavior. I don't think someone is consciously choosing to connect with their perpetrator through appeasement. Instead, we want to look at this as a biological drive that optimizes resources.

woman sleeping in golden meadow smiling

Appeasement and Dissociation

Dissociation is going to be a factor in appeasement as well. Dissociation buffers the conscious understanding of the severity of the situation and the life-threat potential of it.

Existing in a dissociative state is an adaptation that allows that person to not enter a full-on shutdown, which would be life-threatening. So instead of completely shutting down, the body is able to enter into a more dissociative disconnected state, which allows basic functioning to continue. The chance of survival increases, but the dissociation keeps that individual from truly recognizing the impact of what they're doing and their connection with the perpetrator.

woman looking into the sky

Appeasement as a Polyvagal Mixed State

Appeasement is a mixed state. So what are the states involved in appeasement?

And the answer to that is all of them.

Safety state in Appeasement - There is enough activation of the safety state to provide cues of co-regulative safety to the perpetrator.

Flight/Fight state in Appeasement - The sympathetic state is also probably active as well. This enables the captor to escape if the opportunity arises.

Shutdown state in Appeasement - There also seems to be a significant amount of dissociation regarding appeasement. So shutdown is a big part of this as well. Again, dissociation allows for disconnecting from the extreme experience, which entails the appeasing captor to sacrifice their personal values in order to connect with the perpetrator and increase their chances of survival.

person looking at a cloudy island

Experiences of Appeasement.

I will highlight three potential experiences of the appeasement mixed state:

  1. positive feelings toward the captors/abusers.

  2. sympathy for captor's goals and beliefs.

  3. negative feelings toward authority figures.

1. Positive feelings toward the captors or the abusers.

Britannica.Com says, "Psychologist who have studied the syndrome believe that the bond is initially created when a captor threatens a captive's life, deliberates, and then chooses not to kill the captive. The captive's relief at the removal of the death threat is transposed into feelings of gratitude toward the captor for giving him or her life." (sadly no citation for these "psychologists.")

The captive is probably connecting their own well-being to the "happiness" of their captor. forRemember that our nervous system adapts based on the need of survival. So in order to survive, our nervous system potentially could enter into this appeasement state where we are surrendering in order to reduce the threat from another.

2. Sympathy for the captor's beliefs and goals.

The captive identifies that their potential to survive is directly connected to the captor's goals. So it may look like they have sympathy for the goals of the captor.

The captive learns that compliance and submission to the captor's goals will get their needs met. These survival means have otherwise been cut off, as these situations happen in extreme isolation from help.

3. Negative feelings toward police or authority figures

Authority figures are a potential threat to the captive's survival, at least while they are in captivity. The captor is their survival, not the external world.

So hiding the situation from others becomes necessary in order to maintain survival for the captor.

Think of it in terms of the Polyvagal ladder. The captive cannot connect with the other person in a very meaningful, safe, and social kind of way, but they can do so enough to reduce life-threat. But they also cannot run away. They can't fight. They've they have been isolated. And trapped. They also can't exist in a shutdown state for very long, because that would result in death.

So the captive is utilizing their best means of getting their needs met and surviving. And that is existing in a dissociative state that also allows them to be mobilized for escape, but also allows them to surrender their own personal values and connect with the captor in a way that is convincing enough through co-regulatory cues to get the captor or to reduce their aggressiveness.

And if you think about it that way, the potential for escape probably goes up. I don't know how often this is effective, but we could see from a biological interaction between a captor and a captive through this neuroception of co-regulation (pseudo co-regulation?) that there's probably more of a chance of escape if the captor reduces their level of defense/aggression.


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Q: What is Appeasement through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory?

A: Appeasement in the context of the Polyvagal Theory is conceptualized as a co-regulatory mixed state that serves as a replacement for Stockholm Syndrome. It is termed as "super social engagement," which involves using social interaction as a survival strategy, even in extreme, dangerous situations.

Q: How does Appeasement relate to Dissociation?

A: Dissociation plays a role in appeasement by buffering the conscious understanding of the severity of the situation. It allows the individual to function at a basic level without entering a full-on shutdown, thus increasing the chance of survival.

Q: What are the states involved in Appeasement as a Polyvagal Mixed State?

A: Appeasement involves multiple states:

  • Safety State: Provides cues of co-regulative safety to the perpetrator.

  • Flight/Fight State: Enables the possibility of escape if the opportunity arises.

  • Shutdown State: Involves a significant amount of dissociation, allowing for disconnection from the extreme experience. Page: N/A (Blog Article)


Do you trust in your power to self-regulate?

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Your body is compelled to self-regulate, but trauma stops this process. Do you trust that you have the innate power to self-regulate, release your trauma, and live more calmly, confidently, and connected?


Author Bio:

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He hosts the Stuck Not Broken podcast and is the author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Justin is a member of the Polyvagal Institute's Editorial Board.

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