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Primary States vs Secondary Behavior / episode 8 Show Notes

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

Friend, Fawn, Flop, Flooding, Fatigue… and F*** (plus others) do not appear to be a biological response to danger or life threat.

  • They seem more like coping skills, behaviors that are reinforced, learned survival skills… but not autonomic nervous system states

  • They seem to be built upon the foundation of our 3 States

  • So I will call them “Secondary Adaptations” or “Secondary Behaviors” or “Secondary States” for now

Be wary of the language of these when you find them in the internet wilds as you’re researching

  • Not choices, not an option

  • The States are a biological response that aren’t learned

  • It’s innate within our neurology, within the autonomic nervous system hierarchy

The 3 Polyvagal States are immediate reactions to immediate neuroception of danger

  • Not behavior adaptations to trauma, not coping skills, not ways to get your needs met

  • They are evolutionary survival instincts

  • Our state is not about what has or hasn’t worked in the past

  • It’s about what state we have to drop to in order to survive

  • It’s about what our vagal brake can tolerate

  • And what state we are stuck in

  • That’s why we revert to these states even in small instances of stressors, because we basically already exist in that state, not because it worked in the past

But we can absolutely learn what specific behaviors work and don’t work to get our needs met, these can be reinforced

  • Drug use and alcohol give relief from being down the ladder and are extremely reinforcing

  • Spending sprees on things you don’t need serve a purpose, it does something for you. It’s a learned behavior.

  • Leaving class allows me to avoid looking stupid in class while also making me look like a badass in front of my peers and that brings me admiration


  • Seems like Freeze

  • Freeze can look like dissociation, actual stiffened freeze, collapse, faint or a flop

  • These all use a parasympathetic ANS

  • The dorsal vagal pathway


  • Cooperating or submitting to one's threat or captor

  • This seems to be complete submission of the self to a much more powerful, dominant other that controls your basic needs

  • Which seems reminiscent of Freeze, but the Fawner isn’t actually frozen literally

  • They may have been, during the acute, terrifying incidents

  • It seems like a dissociative state, completely out of touch from one’s self identity

  • Maybe closely linked to Dissociative Identity Disorder - also induced through heavy trauma and also a complete surrender and loss of the true self


  • Using social engagement to get your needs met

  • Example given is a baby that is immobile that cries for help... But it’s pre-empted by dropping down the ladder. The baby drops down the ladder first, then cries. It’s State is Flight/Fight! Even though the baby can’t run, it’s still using the circuitry of flight/fight - the sympathetic branch. Coo to a baby in their social engagement system and they will hear you Coo to a baby that’s crying and they won’t, their ears are now attuned to danger and not your prosody. They aren’t making eye contact when they’re crying


  • Being flooded with emotions in response to a threat

  • Yes, we’re absolutely feeling some type of flooding when in danger… but that’s a reflection of the State

  • The emotions you feel flooded by will probably be a reflection of the State you’re in

  • You’ll feel flooded by panic if you’re surrounded by wild dogs that are growling deeply


  • Feeling tired and/or sleeping in response to a threat

  • Sounds like a coping skill to tolerate mild stress

  • Or depression/shut down

Point being - we have our 3 states that are directly linked to neural circuitry and evolutionary hierarchy. We can trace these things back in time and see the function they played in evolution and why they are still within us.

Think of these states as primaries, like primary colors.

  • Red, Blue, Yellow - You can’t create Primary colors by mixing other colors. They simply are primary.

  • The states can be mixed, like in Play & Stillness

  • Just like Red & Blue are Purple. Purple is secondary color. It has its own look, with recognizable pieces from the primary States. With mixed States, they will have their own look

  • Sitting still to use the restroom does not look the same as freeze

We don’t see pure Primary States very often day to day

  • Even though someone may exist in majority shut down, they’re going to use their legs to walk to school, which is sympathetic. They can still do some level of interaction usually

  • They might be getting some work done or doing some interaction

  • There seems to be a sort of pie chart for mixed states, which is different individual to individual. And different situation to situation. And also different when interacting with someone in another State

  • And the way a State affects you is going to be completely contingent on your history and genetics (which I have no idea of and can't test for)

We probably see mixed States regularly without realizing it:

  • The person that is in a deep depression (shut down), but is able to smile off the pain and convince others they’re okay.

  • Chris Farley is a tragic example of this - Heavy drug use which he ultimately died of on the same day as his idol, John Belushi, in the same way. But he was the funniest man in the room and deeply loved by his friends

  • Robin Williams - Killed himself, obviously depressed severely, but the highest energy person we may have ever seen in our lifetime.

  • Gary Vaynerchuk is an extremely aggressive person, but also seems to have a very high level of caring… but he does so very aggressively.

  • Kids I work with that are more depressed frequently show as angry and defiant

Also seems to be a spectrum within the primary States, or at least a range of behaviors within the State.

  • Like shut down can be collapse, death feigning, catatonic freezing, fainting, dissociation - These all are within the realm of freeze.

  • In session, I don’t see clients going into an actual freeze, but I do see them dissociate. It’s the same parasympathetic pathway

  • There seems to be a spectrum within that pathway of bx based on many things

So the question to ask yourself is not which of the three Primary States are you in?

  • More like, which of the three primary States do I feel the strongest or the most often?


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