Flight/Fight/Freeze... and Camouflage?

Updated: Dec 24, 2019




Hey Justin!

A psychologist I talk with includes one more category on top of the "flight/fight/freeze" - "Camouflage” or “Pretend.” In this state, we’re emotionally distressed, physically exhausted, or otherwise at our wits end, but we never tell anyone due to a (true or false) belief that we’ll be attacked/rejected if we show vulnerability. 

My question is: how does this state affect which nervous system state we operate from? Additionally, people can be in this state of repressed overwhelm while successfully socializing (interpreting social cues and modeling accurate facial expressions/voice tone/etc). Could this be maintained simply by oscillating between states? Or do you think this is purely a manifestation of a shutdown state?

Basically, a significant portion of us are living in fear of vulnerability and it’s definitely affecting the nervous system.


Thanks for the question!


I can't recall anyone I've read that directly comments on something of these things you're bringing up. So this is really me sort of brainstorming here. Let's see what happens!


Let's address these in small chunks:


...we’re emotionally distressed, physically exhausted, or otherwise at our wits end, but we never tell anyone due to a (true or false) belief that we’ll be attacked/rejected if we show vulnerability. 

The fear of rejection or aggression is a Story that we create to match our state. If we're already down the ladder, we'll have some level of avoidance, aggression or shut down. Fearing rejection or aggression has the vibe of shut down to me and that's basically what you alluded to as well. It just feels like someone trying to hide or be invisible. And this experience of wanting to be invisible or hide is definitely a shut down experience.


Yet this person (any of us) can also utilize their social engagement system effectively enough to get by. I'll build on this...


how does the camouflage state affect which nervous system state we operate from?

The "camouflage" or "pretend" state doesn't sound to me like a true stand-alone state, like F/F/F. What it sounds like to me a is a combination of social engagement and one of the other states. So social engagement plus F/F/F. But I don't know which one is more dominant - the safe and social system or one of the Fs. I know we can combine state (play = social engagement + flight/fight and stillness = social engagement + freeze). But these two little math equations rely on the fact that the social engagement piece is the dominant one. So this brings us to an interesting proposition...


Can we combine safety with FFF, with the FFF being more dominant than the safety? In essence, the safety system would be used to reinforce the protective nature of being in freeze or flight/fight. Again, this is just me brainstorming and putting things out there for us to process. I've never read on anything like this, but it kinda makes sense.


So in this light then, yeah, "camouflage" kinda makes sense. Not as its own state in and of itself. Like, (wow, I'm realizing I'm writing like I talk) not as its own autonomic nervous system state. But the inner/outer experience of a combination of safety and defense, with more emphasis on defense. In contrast, relaxation is an experience of safety + shut down (stillness). And invisibility is an experience of shut down.


To answer the first question then, "how does this state affect which nervous system state we operate from?" My answer as of now is that this is a combo of states with the defensive states being the primary mover. Someone in a "camouflage" state is using their social engagement to blend in as a way of maintaining their defensive state and prevent going further down the polyvagal ladder.


And another wrinkle here is to realize that these 4 states (safety/FFF) are the "pure" versions, but of course we don't exist in 100% safety or FFF. Really, it's degrees of these states that blend together. Watching a horror movie doesn't send us into complete flight, but it activates the sympathetic system enough to hold our breath and lose our facial affect.


Again, this is really a new line of thinking for me. I'll have to ask Dr Porges when the day comes where I interview him. I have to actually muster up the courage for that first though. Speaking of which...


a significant portion of us are living in fear of vulnerability and it’s definitely affecting the nervous system.

I am absolutely terrified to ask Dr Porges, Peter Levine or Deb Dana for an interview. So much so, that I am not even asking them. Now the question to ask here is obviously, "Why aren't you asking them for an interview?" And my responses would be something along the lines of: "I'm terrified," "They'll think I'm a phony" or "They'll be pissed at me for not citing them correctly on the podcast." Are the assumptions true? I have no idea. Probably not.


Why are these thoughts there? "Story follows state." These thoughts that I've conjured up are my brain's attempt to explain the state of my nervous system when it comes to asking for an interview. And that state, when it comes to the neuroception of the idea of asking for an interview, feels to me like shut down. When it comes to asking for the interview, my body basically goes into a state of mild shut down, enough to stop the momentum of moving forward with something that I genuinely want.


To bring this back to the statement from the listener, it's not the "fear of vulnerability" that affects the autonomic nervous system state... it's already in a state of vulnerability and fear, which might be a state of shut down (or maybe flight). Then whatever thoughts pop into your head are just a reflection of that.


Likewise, my body, when it comes to asking for an interview, is already in a state of shut down. But only when it comes to that. Otherwise, I'm not. But when it comes to that in particular, I regard these three, my Polyvagal Trinity, as my intellectual superiors. They are more powerful than me, have more influence than me and more credibility. My neuroception is one of submissive shut down to perceived power. So the excuses I have in my head about why I shouldn't ask for an interview, are just a reflection of that insecurity or submissiveness.


By the way, I'll tackle this. I felt the same way before recording my first episode and publishing my first tweet. I'll get to where I need to be, just gotta go through my process.


I hope that brings some clarity or at least an interesting angle worth discussing to you, Dear Listener. Thanks again for asking!


Justin



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