survival mode engaged

Survival Mode: Engaged

Polyvagal Theory 

Last time I posted I wrote about your autonomic nervous system – your fight/flight and rest/digest response. In this post I want to introduce you to a bit more nuance in understanding how we as humans deal with threat and trauma, using Polyvagal Theory as a starting point.  

The theory holds that our first reaction to a threat in our environment is not fighting or fleeing, it’s social engagement, asking for help. Not necessarily intentionally, and not necessarily using words.

Seeing Stress

Imagine you see a friend that looks stressed out. You can tell from the tension around their eyes, the way they’re holding their mouth. Maybe you can hear it in their clipped tone of voice. Their facial and vocal muscles are being manipulated by their nervous system.

It would be difficult for them to sound and appear sincerely relaxed in a stressed state like this. Their face and voice give them away. And there is something in your brain that attunes to their emotion and recognizes it as stress. We call it empathy.  

Responding with Compassion

If all goes well, you respond from a regulated nervous system. You stay calm but feel concern. You interact with them with compassion and care.

Maybe you extend the gentle touch of your hand on their shoulder, or softly ask if there is something getting to them that they want to talk about. If they choose to share, you let them talk and listen kindly, without getting too agitated or stressed on their behalf.

You maintain a regulated nervous system. In so doing, you help them co-regulate with you. You help their nervous system find balance and rest. Your bodies are interacting as much as your minds. 

Responding with Anger

Let’s imagine another scenario where it isn’t you that comes upon your stressed out friend, it’s someone else. Someone that is already on edge, with their sympathetic, heart-pounding nervous system dominant.

This person hears the clipped vocal tone of your worried friend and reacts poorly. They angrily ask your friend what’s your problem? and accuse them of lying. Maybe they point their finger and poke them hard in the chest. Now we have two dysregulated nervous systems in interaction. What might happen to your friend?  

Mode of Survival: Fight

One possibility is that your friend, already on edge, rises to the occasion and pokes them back. Emotionally or physically, the two of them get into a raging fight. These are two sympathetic nervous systems taking control and two adult brains only partially online. The long-term, strategic thinking part of their brains can’t be accessed in this state. Survival mode: Fight engaged.  

Mode of Survival: Flee

Or they don’t poke back. For a moment they stare daggers, then turn around and stomp away. Now they’re breathing hard, their fists are clenched, and they are en route to avoid a fight. Survival mode: Flee engaged. All the energy of Fight, channeled into getting away.  

Mode of Survival: Fold

Another possibility is that your friend, already on edge, now goes numb. Their eyes go from tense and stressed to blank and empty. Their body goes from jittery and anxious to collapsed and folding in.

If you could see inside their mind, it would sound hollow. No racing thoughts, but no robust awareness of the present moment. They feel out of body, maybe like they’re floating off in the corner of the room, watching what’s happening from above. They can no longer feel the state they’re in. Survival mode: Fold engaged. The stress hormones are still pumping, your friend is just dissociating from them.

Mode of Survival: Fawn

The last possibility I’ll spin is this: Your friend, startled by the accusations from this other person, immediately apologizes. They start to blame themselves and seem to be almost begging this person to forgive them. They offer to do them favors. They thank them profusely for being a good friend. They complement them. Survival mode: Fawn engaged. The energy is channeled into a dysfunctional social connection, but a social connection nonetheless.  

It’s unconscious

It’s about survival. All of this can happen to each of us below our conscious awareness. These fight/flight/fold/fawn nervous system events knock out our higher level thinking abilities and wreak havoc in our relationships. Sometimes and for some of us, anyway.

We live in a traumatizing world

I think we live in a traumatizing world with a lot to deal with on a daily basis. It can take a lot of work to stay regulated, to cope with traumatic experiences without being traumatized by them long term.

Foundations from childhood

The work is especially challenging if your body didn’t learn how to regulate from a young age from caregivers who had regulated nervous systems to begin with. In co-regulation, our bodies learn from other regulated bodies how to feel through life’s inevitable survival mode reactions and back into a relaxed state. This lays the foundation for self-regulation later on. 

I think through the generations, we’ve all lived in a traumatizing world. It’s a lot to ask of parents who didn’t learn it themselves as children. It’s a lot to ask anyone to do, but I think it’s incredibly important work for the health of individuals, communities, and the world. 

Understanding is helpful. 

For me, learning about this stuff goes a long way towards the journey of healing, and it’s with that intention that I share it with you. There are many resources available to help people and their nervous systems learn to better regulate. If you’re intellectually interested, check out books by Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, and Stephen Porges. Find trauma-informed providers: yoga teachers, mental health therapists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, MDs.  

How to regulate right now

One thing you can do right now to help with regulation is to take 5 intentional breaths. They don’t have to be insanely deep, just do your best to feel the entirety of your inhales and your exhales, and keep count. Or, if feeling your breath makes you anxious, instead you can look around your room and name 5 things you see.


Image by Alexander Dummer from Pexels