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Autonomic Responses vs Behavioral Adaptations

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

What an Autonomic Response is

An autonomic response is a shift in the autonomic nervous system that comes along with a neuroception of safety or danger.

This neuroception of safety or danger can be from the external or internal environment. From the external environment, the trigger for the autonomic response could be a safety cue, like a smile from a safe other. It could also be a danger cue, like a face with wide eyes and flat affect. From the internal environment, it could be from pain, hunger or illness. It could also be cognitions.

When we neurocept safety or danger, our brain stem utilizes the autonomic nervous system to adjust our physiology for what its assessing the needs for survival or connection to be (as best as I'm understanding it). There are countless unconscious cues that are being filtered at all times. Sometimes a cue is detected as requiring the body to become more mobile, triggering the sympathetic flight/fight system. If that system is unable to get the organism to safety, the brain stem neurocepts a need to immobilize, triggering the dorsal vagal shutdown system.

None of these autonomic shifts are planned out. They are unconscious reactions, sort of like software programs in a computer. If there is a certain input from the outside, like typing a keyboard, then the computer responds based on its programming. Humans are similar in that there is a sort of "program" that is within us. There are universal inputs into our human software that are likely to produce similar results. Such as:

  • loud sounds

  • tight spaces

  • darkness

  • flat affect

  • monotone voices

  • wide eyes

  • unsafe touch

  • intrusive space

This is obviously an over-generalization, as these universalities will look different per individual. And that's going to be based on things like culture, distress tolerance and that person's place on their own polyvagal ladder.

If you're familiar with the Polyvagal Theory, you know that human beings and all mammals have multiple hierarchical autonomic states that can be utilized. We shift to these states in an unconscious sequence of events vs a conscious menu of options that we might be thought to choose from. Here are our autonomic states -

Primary autonomic states:

  • ventral vagal safe and social state

  • sympathetic flight/fight system

  • dorsal vagal shutdown system

Secondary autonomic states:

  • play = ventral + sympathetic

  • stillness = ventral + dorsal

  • freeze = sympathetic + dorsal

Ideally, we are anchored in our state of ventral vagal safety and social engagement. It's not easy and shouldn't be expected to realistically happen 100% of the time. But I think a goal each of us should have is to access that state more and more and build a firm anchor there. I made a course called Building Safety Anchors that will help you to connect more to the present moment, to access that state more and more. If you're ready to feel more in your body and more in the present moment, it might be a good fit for you.

What a Behavioral Adaptation is

A "behavioral adaptation" is a behavior that we engage in as an adaptation to stuck defensive energy. The stuck defensive energy comes from being unable to regulate back up the polyvagal ladder and into the ventral pathways.

When we are in these defensive states (and the safe/social state), it's really important that we actually feel the experience of that defensive state. When we do so, it allows the defensive energy to run its course and discharge. Then the autonomic nervous system can regulate to the top of the polyvagal ladder, into the safe/social state.

Instead, what we humans do is ignore the defensive energy. And I don't blame us - it kinda sucks! That energy is experienced as sorrow, despair, panic, rage, anger, anxiety and more. These are all perfectly natural and simply a part of the process. But yeah - feeling them can kinda suck at first. Eventually, we can build our capacity to feel them and actually welcome them. But at first, we typically lean toward avoiding feeling these things.

And that's what a behavioral adaptation is. It's something we do to avoid feeling the discomfort of shifting up the polyvagal ladder. Even though we want it - to climb the ladder - doing so is vulnerable and leaves us feeling exposed. Feelings and memories will come up that cause a neuroception of danger and send us right back down the ladder. Being able to tolerate the experience of these states and of ladder climbing is essential to the process of getting unstuck. We have to stay firmly anchored in our ventral vagal safe/social state.

But again, instead of feeling into - and not avoiding - the defensive energy, we engage in some sort of behavior. Substance use is an obvious one. It relieves the pain and might give us a pseudo ladder climb. Through using a substance, we can cope with the defensive energy. It doesn't help, but it provides a relief. No, I am not recommending that you use a substance. This is what I've heard from many of my clients.

Cutting and self harm could be another behavioral adaptation. I see cutting in particular often as an adaptation to the triggered freeze energy or returning sympathetic fight energy as a client comes out of shutdown. Their capacity to be anchored in their safety state and to tolerate the energy is basically non-existent.

Fawn is a Behavioral Adaptation

I see providers and mental health content creators getting these confused or not understanding the Polyvagal Theory in relation to how a survivor remains stuck. They confuse behavioral adaptations with autonomic states.

For example, "Fawn" is not an autonomic response. Fawn is probably more of a behavioral adaptation to the defensive autonomic response. The behaviors of fawning are in response to the state of the autonomic nervous system of the individual. It's a strategy of getting basic needs met, self-preservation, sacrificing the authentic self for the dominant other in the relationship.

But these are behaviors. Not autonomic pathways. Remember, the primary and mixed states listed above are directly connected to specific biological pathways. They are direct representations of the evolutionary functions of those pathways. There is nothing like that for the behaviors of "fawning," as best I know. One could argue that the fawning strategies could actually be an adaptation to any of the stuck defensive states, probably with a significant amount of the dorsal vagal shutdown state.

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