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Adaptations to a Stuck Polyvagal State

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

Hope you enjoy the read!



As we have already laid out, trauma is being in a stuck defensive state. This is an inability to regulate back up the Polyvagal ladder and into the ventral safety pathways. That is, the inability to self-regulate. An adaptation is a means to cope with stuck defensive energy and the discomfort that it brings.


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. Mindfully. 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 feeling them can be very challenging 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.


Adaptations can be understood as maladaptive coping mechanisms. Or someone's best attempts at coping. Coping doesn't mean the individual is actually making change; they're mostly just getting through the moment or have adopted a prolonged coping mechanism. Porges specifies behavioral adaptations as a means to cope; and I will be adding cognitive adaptations into the discussion as well.


Behavioral adaptations

A behavioral adaptation is a behavior that we engage in as an adaptation to stuck defensive energy. It's something we do to avoid feeling the discomfort of shifting up the Polyvagal ladder or of existing in a defensive state. 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 pseudo-relief. (No, I am not recommending that you use a substance.)

Other examples of behavioral adaptations:

  • addictions of all kinds

  • physical abuse

  • bullying

  • isolating

  • acting out in class

  • self-harm

  • oversleeping

  • disordered eating

  • workaholism

  • social media binges

Imagine someone is a workaholic. They work all night and neglect their spouse and family. They have a history of childhood abuse and are stuck in a fight sympathetic state. If they were to mindfully feel their aggression, it would be too much for them. They are not ready for it. Their vagal brake is not developed.

To cope with this, they focus their fight energy into their work. They don't actually feel their aggression, they just continue to channel it into their work. They are able to complete a lot and be successful, but their state never changes and so neither does their life satisfaction.


Interactions with their family arouse feelings of pressure and frustration, which they again channel into their work instead of feeling. They have successfully avoided the defensive state and the pains of actually mindfully being with it. But this strategy keeps them stuck in their state.


These behaviors obviously involve some level of cognitions. The gambling addict has intrusive thoughts about the need to gamble and a big payoff. Our workaholic has thoughts of needing more money, more security and the family's well-being. These thoughts compliment the behavior.


Let's more specifically call these stories, to use Deb Dana's phrasing. The stories follow the state and reinforce the behavioral adaptation. The workaholic spends so much time working because they "have to provide more for the family!" The story of providing for the family is driven by feelings of aggression and pressure, coming from a stuck fight state. The story reinforces the behavior that reinforces the state.



Cognitive adaptations

Cognitive adaptations are top-down skills that are implemented in order to cope with the pains of a stuck defensive state. Same as a behavioral adaptation. But rather than being body-based, it's brain-based. Porges does not specifically differentiate cognitive or behavioral adaptations, so this is my own insertion into the theory that I think adds something.


I'm not specifically discussing the thought stories, like needing to provide more for the family. I am more interested in the skills that support the thought stories. Using the phrase thought skills might add more clarity, in comparison to thought stories. The thought skill drives the story that compliments the behavior.

There are numerous ways that we humans cope through our cognitions:

  • rationalizing

  • minimizing

  • maximizing/catastrophizing

  • denial

  • projection

  • intellectualization

  • ignoring

I don't think that the thought skill used necessarily follows the Polyvagal state like a story does. The flavor of the thought skill definitely will though. For example, let's look at the thought skill of minimization. This refers to the skill of reducing the intensity or the importance of something, done through a thought.

  • Minimizing through shutdown - "It's not a big deal. Doesn't really matter anyway. Nothing will change."

  • Minimizing through fight - "It's not a big deal, get over it already! Why do you have to make it such a big thing?!"

  • Minimizing through flight - "It's not a big deal. I'll do better next time, I promise! It's okay it's okay, please don't be mad."

  • Minimizing through safety - "It's really not a big deal. Anyone could have discovered time travel, but thank you. I'm glad I got to do my part."

Each of these involves minimizing, but they sound a lot different. You may have used your imagination and created a scenario around these examples. You could probably see the face of the person in the fight example and how different it would be from the person in the safety example. Yet, they are both using the skill of minimizing. And they both intend to reduce the importance of something.


The flavor is different and that comes from the Polyvagal state. Minimizing from fight results in someone attempting to make someone else's thoughts less significant. If successful, the individual in fight feels dominant, which is very much a fight-fueled feeling. Minimizing from safety resulted in a story of doing one's part and being a part of a larger group.


This leaves us with the potential to use our thought skills for the purpose of coping with a stuck defensive state. The person in fight copes by minimizing others' feelings. This leaves them feeling dominant, misusing their fight energy, but also remaining stuck. The person in flight misuses their thought skills to avoid a danger but reinforces their stuck sympathetic flight state. The person in shutdown misuses their thought skills to appear invisible or insignificant; again, reinforcing their stuck state.


This is similar to a behavioral adaptation. The potential behavior can look similar depending on one's state, but have a different flavor to it. If you wrestle with someone in a safety state, it'll be playful. If you wrestle with someone in a fight state, it will be to dominate.


I think this is worth differentiating. A thought skill as supportive of, but distinct from a thought story. And how a thought skill is colored by the Polyvagal state.


Journal:

  1. Do you have behavior adaptation you engage in when you're dysregulated?

  2. What emotion is driving the adaptation?

  3. What state is driving the emotion?

  4. Do you have a thought story about yourself? In other words, how do you feel about yourself? What is your worth in the world? What is your worth to others?

  5. Is it possible that thought story is wrong?



 

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Thanks for reading!

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