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Safe/Social + Shutdown = Stillness
In particular, we’re talking about stillness without fear. Stillness with fear is going to be the freeze mixed state, basically. You’re shutdown, but sympathetically charged. Stillness without fear is different. It’s calm, relaxed and reflective. It allows someone to sit in silence, to use the restroom, to be physically close with another, intimate with a partner or to lay down and fall asleep.
Immobilization without safety
Individuals that are stuck down their Polyvagal ladders in flight/fight may experience a neuroception of danger when immobile. For them, immobility is simply unsafe - they’ve exposed themselves to potential danger. If you’re already in a state of danger, then you need to be mobile. If you were in the wild, your body would be primed to run or fight. You wouldn’t sit in a chair in this state. The gazelle that is running from a lion doesn’t lay down to go to sleep. They use the energy within them.
Children in a sympathetic state will find sitting in a classroom environment challenging. First, just being immobile is a tall order. That child is ready to run or fight, not sit. But the environment itself is also going to have numerous cues of danger which will keep that child down their ladder: people, sounds, pressure, falling behind in class, feeling dumb, teacher comments/sarcasm and more. All of these will serve to just keep that student down their ladder.
Traumatized individuals oftentimes have difficulty with things like meditation or yoga for the same reasons. They’re immobilized and open to danger. Their eyes may also be closed while meditating - another potential danger. Or certain poses may cause a neuroception of danger in yoga, based on that person’s history.
Compounding the issue are what the person finds when looking inward. Both of these activities involve and require a lot of self-reflection and awareness. When immobilized and focused inward, there’s really no filter between awareness and what one may be attempting to avoid that is still alive within them. Those memories, thoughts and feelings will be felt in these moments of unsafe immobility.
Another experience of potentially unsafe immobility is sleep. Or more likely, being awake before falling asleep. Laying down to go to sleep, in the dark, with your eyes closed, in the silence of night is filled with danger cues. And maybe even worse if the person next to you is a danger cue as well.
Laying down and immobilizing to go to sleep brings a lot of stress, anxiety and worry. Your sympathetic state is active and distracting yourself is now removed as an option to cope. You’re just… laying there. Immobilized. While possibly charged to run or fight. Thoughts shift along with your state and your feelings. Anxious thoughts like what needs to be accomplished the next day, something you didn’t do that day, memories of the past and panic about not falling asleep might cloud your head.
Why is immobilization unsafe?
Just like with mobilization, anything is unsafe without the social engagement system active. If you’re immobile, that means being open to a predator. That’s the message your body will send to your brain. Your brain needs the social engagement system active to be able to handle the immobilization and repurpose it for stillness.
Unfortunately, we need to be still throughout the day to get through a class, get through work, go to sleep and use the restroom. These and other instances aren’t exactly something we can escape either. We’re stuck. Our bodies are charged if we exist down the ladder in flight/fight, but then we’re immobilized throughout the day with no option of fighting or running. So our bodies do not get the relief of energy discharge. It just stays within us.
Coping with immobilization
So we adapt. We do things to deal with the immobilization necessary in stillness. Not solve the problem, really. Just deal with it.
While you’re laying down to go to sleep, do you have a screen on? Something to distract you while you lay there? Something to listen to, like music? Or a white noise machine? Do you drink or get high? These are ways to distract ourselves from what’s happening within. An external way of coping with the internal world. To get enough relief from our distress that we can immobilize and maybe even fall asleep.
The phenomenon of ASMR is something I find intriguing. For many, this brings a sense of safety. ASMR encourages relaxation through a safe other and that others’ cues of safety, such as being taken care of or pampered. The audio is very quiet, with the ASMR host whispering while also providing facial safety cues. Their whisper gives the viewer something to focus on, something to orient to. There’s also a sense of being taken care of, cared for and cared about. Many people report “tingles” while they listen to the ASMR sounds. This may be small sensations of stuck defensive energy being let out. Peter Levine has discussed tingles as being small versions of shaking and trembling, something that may come along with flight/fight discharge.
In the classroom, children will often create behavior problems to avoid the unsafe feelings of immobilization. Behavior problems bring a sense of danger, which matches their internal state and provides the danger that they are constantly scanning for. They may also be an outlet in and of themselves, a way to use flight/fight energy. Fighting with a peer or running from one, for example.
Problem is, it doesn’t actually solve anything. The energy isn’t actually released. It’s probably reinforced because the student is again in a situation where they are perceiving danger without a way to efficiently discharge the energy. And these behavior problems create further problems, like getting in trouble, being shamed and missing out on valuable social time. Mindfulness needs to be attached to the energy release for it to actually take place. Students like this might be better served with classroom mindfulness strategies combined with fidgets.
Name one instance from this past week when you felt your stillness mixed state active.
How do you know it was stillness?
Can you identify any ways that you have of coping with being immobile?
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