Ah, fight, flight and freeze; the most common and widely known stress responses within the nervous system. Even reptilian species exhibit these behaviours, but is that the full scope of what we do as human beings?
In an article by Dr Steven Porges (father of “Polyvagal Theory”) written in 1995, Porges asserts “mammalian, but not reptilian, brain stem organisation is characterised by a ventral vagal complex… related to processes associated with attention, motion, emotion, and communication.”
What does that mean?
Well, essentially it means we have a more complicated nervous system than we originally believed, and that there are more nervous system responses than we thought.
Firstly, there are three (not two) components to our nervous system. Previously, what was known were the Sympathetic System (fight, flight) and the Parasympathetic System (freeze/faint). However, the work of Porges led to the conclusion that there was, in fact, a third element. The “Social Engagement System,” which is linked through a complex nerve called the Vagus Nerve. The back end of the Vagus Nerve is called the Dorsal Vagus, informally the Parasympathetic System now referred to as the Dorsal Parasympathetic System. The front end of the Vagus Nerve is the Ventral Vagus, informally the “Social Engagement System,” also called the Ventral Parasympathetic System or the Myelinated Vagus. So, we have three components, and each is responsible for certain functions.
To simplify this we can call the states Connected, Crisis, and Conservation
It may help to think of the Nervous System as a car. When the car is fuelled well and everything is functioning, such as steering and the breaks, the car can travel safely and effectively along the road with others and towards its destination (Connected). However, upon hitting a bump suddenly, the steering is shot, and the breaks don’t work; all control is lost, and the car is now winding dangerously (Crisis). Then the cars engine fails, no longer able to be driven and unable to get to a safe destination; stranded and unsafe there is no way to escape. The car is turned off to preserve battery and fuel for later (Conservation).
When the system is fully functioning, the Connected system allows a person’s state to function optimally; more aware of the happenings around them without overwhelm, listening to others, reading facial cues, a regular heart rate, relaxed breathing, healthy digestion, a functioning immune system, and so on. This is our “healthy” state. From an emotional/mind based perspective, a person can be more attuned with their feelings, accept and healthily process them without suppression (intrapersonal attunement – though some may refer to this as emotional regulation), and can be equally attuned to the feelings of others via empathy and compassion, without the need to distract, suppress, or make unhelpful remarks (interpersonal attunement – though some refer to this as co-regulation).
This is the state of Feel or Flow.
However, there are a number of states (seven), and a couple of these states are “cross-over” states that are activated when two states are engaged simultaneously.
The Seven F’s:
- Feel (Connected)
- Fawn (Connection Crisis)
- Flight (Crisis)
- Fight (Crisis)
- Fidget (Crisis avoiding Conservation)
- Freeze (Conservation)
- Faint/Flop (Conservation)
As above, we can see what the Feel state looks like in the average person. However, let’s take a parenting viewpoint and consider what it looks like for a child to be in the Feel state.
When the nervous system of a child is operating from the Connected System a child is more cooperative, calm, curious, compassionate, connected, and confident. Exploring the world from a felt sense of safety and self-assurance, these children can navigate frustration more effectively, have a larger window of tolerance, and know their boundaries. Don’t be mistaken, these children are not submissive or blindly compliant; they have a great sense of self and are not easily persuaded to do things that do not feel right for them or that aren’t aligned with their values (boundaries), they are no push-over. They are not perfect (no one is) but they have an incredible capacity for consideration of self and others.
What supports this state?
Well, it is the system of Social Engagement aka Connection, that should give us a clue. For all people, especially children, this system is best activated and supported through a felt sense of connection. As adults, we can internalise this felt sense. For example, if you are in a good place with your spouse, you feel more deeply connected throughout your day even though you are not physically close. Children, on the other hand, can’t do this to the same degree (infant and babies cannot do this at all). So dedicated time together becomes imperative to support a child’s Connected system.
Moreover, it is important to understand that for a child’s Connection System to develop properly (become stronger as they grow), it must “learn” from another system. Through interpersonal attunement, children borrow the nervous system/states of their parents/carers and adults. If the adult is intrapersonally attuned (consciously aware of and compassionate towards their own emotional state) then the child’s system can link with the adult’s and calm; increasing their window of tolerance and ability to give self-compassion as they grow.
Fawn (Connection Crisis)
The Fawn response activates when there is a crisis in connection. That is an emotional, physical, or psychological risk of danger within a relationship (perpetuated by self or by another).
This is often seen in many adults as a “people-pleasing” type of attitude. You may be very familiar with it, where you can’t say “no” to colleagues, friends, or family. You feel a deep drive to have to “help” everybody even to your detriment. Or it might be that you feel deeply insecure in a relationship and avoid conflict at all cost so “give in,” agree, or rarely voice your opinion, concerns or feelings.
How does this become an overriding state in adults?
Well, in children it can be perpetrated by an externalised form of motivation. This often takes the form of praise, approval, and rewards. Yes, these can negatively impact the nervous system. Why? Because instead of a child feeling into their own body, about what they need, how they are feeling, and being seen and heard, the adults around them try to change the child’s behaviours (instead of attempting to understand them) to make things easier for themselves (adult). After all, rewards, praise, and approval are no more than glorified manipulation tactics. From the innocuous to the toxic.
So, let us look at how this plays out through the ages:
A toddler being told she is a good girl when she sits still, even though her developmental need is to run and explore.
A kindergartener being given a star for sharing a beloved toy with a younger sibling though she is scared that it will get broken.
A primary aged child receiving approval for playing with a child she does not want to because of past negative interactions.
A tween being accepted into the popular group at school but only if she “dumps” her best friend.
The teenager receiving “love” from a boyfriend only if she sleeps with him before she is ready.
The young adult is not able to set boundaries in unhealthy friendship for fear of disapproval and rejection.
The Fawn response drives submission, co-dependency, and a “loss of self” because of the fear of a relational death. It is better to do what someone else wants because otherwise they will disapprove and reject me, so I will be “good.” However, there is no running from that fear and there is no fighting it because those things will still result in the relational “death.” So, it is best to submit.
Fight and Flight (Crisis)
These are the two most widely known stress responses and are a part of the sympathetic system. When a stressor arises that is perceived to be a threat or danger, the system becomes primed for action. However, it is very important to understand one thing:
The part of the brain that interprets physical pain and threat is the same part that is responsible for interpreting emotional and psychological pain and threat. The brain cannot tell the difference between physical pain and emotional pain. This is why heartbreak feels just as physical as it does emotional.
So, if a child does not feel safe (physically OR emotionally) then this can look like running away, escaping from classrooms, throwing furniture, hitting, kicking, clinginess, hiding, lashing out verbally, not being able to finish tasks/activities, running around in circles, and more.
Fidget (Crisis avoiding Conservation)
Ah, the Fidget response, possibly the least acknowledged of all the responses; a cross over between the states of crisis and conservation and it is a “last-ditch effort” to avoid a total shutdown that arises when significant danger or threat occurs but there is no way to run or to fight. Some people may view this as an extension of the sympathetic response (crisis).
The reason I would assert that it is partially tied to the conservation system is because of the aspect of disassociation that is often present whilst people Fidget. Here is how it looks:
As adults, it is any behaviour, activity, habit, or hobby we engage with not for enjoyment, learning, or connection, but as a way of suppressing emotion. They can be things considered “pro-social” such as cleaning, working, or going to the gym, but are more often seen through the lens of negativity, such as nail-biting, over/under eating, smoking, and the like. As you can see a wide range of behaviours can be present in this state, but the behaviour isn’t necessarily what defines the state but the reason for the behaviour: emotional suppression. Anything that we do to avoid feeling the feeling; these are also referred to as numbing behaviours, control patterns (Aletha Solter, PhD), and can even take on the form of “emotional regulation techniques.”
It isn’t always easy to tell if someone is engaging in a fidget response or rather meeting a need. For instance, children need to be appropriately stimulated, and movement, running around, climbing, jumping, and so on are all important to their development for both body and mind. However, movement can also be used as a Fidget response, though more subdued than what it looks like in “flight.” It can be leg shaking, tapping, clicking pens, wriggling on chairs, touching everything, not staying still and so on. But there is more.
In these instances, a complex subconscious dialogue can be taking place:
Children need to move, as stated above, however, many educational institutions require children to stay still for excessive periods. If a child attempts to meet the need for movement overtly (such as running around) they “get in trouble” or if they “be good” and stay still they will receive a reward. Cue internal conflict: internal need vs external motivation. As this conflict takes over their nervous system, the child is still aware that they cannot fight or run away from this predicament; however, they are starting to feel a significant threat of overwhelm (remember their systems are significantly underdeveloped). Without any nervous system to borrow (interpersonal attunement) and no way out, the only way the child can avoid a system shutdown is to fidget.
Sometimes well-meaning adults encourage a fidget response to support “regulation.” However, I would argue that this is detrimental, and not “regulation.” Not unlike the fawn response learning, so too do we learn fidget responses that lead to emotional avoidance because they do not acknowledge or meet the underlying need. Instead of experiencing (in childhood) and, therefore later, developing healthy ways to navigate our emotions, instead we attempt to “regulate” through suppressive tactics instead of ever actually coming face to face with our feelings. Demands for perfectionism, over focussing on routine, workaholism, constantly attending the gym, immersing in latest hobbies, mindlessly scrolling, and more are examples of activities that can be used to numb and therefore impede on engaging in other areas of life whilst being “social acceptable.” This can often lead to passive parenting, emotional distance in relationships, an inability to manage conflict, emotional breakdowns, “snapping,” and more. These are the behaviours of adults who were not supported via interpersonal attunement and became reliant on fidgeting to manage life events.
Fidgeting like all responses can be lifesaving, they serve a purpose (the body would not have developed them if they did not). However, except for the connection system, they were not meant to be a person’s default state.
Freeze and Faint/Flop (Conservation)
The other commonly known states of Freeze and Faint/Flop, these occur as a total shutdown or system “collapse.” The dear in headlights, the spider faking death, the stunned bird. The system is not flooded (like in a crisis response) but is now offline completely and attempting to maintain vital functions to avoid death.
These can be the obvious behaviours such as literal fainting or staying quiet and still so as not to be found by the “predator.” However, it can take on more complex forms such as addiction, depression, withdrawal, social isolation, avoidance, and hopelessness. It can be the person who feels alone in a room full of people, the mother who has “lost herself,” or the person without purpose. Essentially a sense that the spark and joy of life are gone and won’t come back.
This is the very last response of the nervous system and is engaged only to preserve life. Complicated further by the fact that as human beings we do not engage with this system through purely a physical experience. It can be activated emotionally, and the impact itself is also emotional. It takes the longest to “return from” because it was the first stress response to develop (approximately five hundred million years ago.) It can take days, weeks, months, and even years for a person to “return” from a conservation response depending on the severity of the causal event(s); and yes, this is a response present at birth.
Unlike the other responses that require physical or cognitive development or dependence on others (to run, fight, or interpersonally and later intrapersonally attune) this response is for survival.
The Good News
The good news is that everyone has this system and being informed about our own, and others, systems brings empowerment. Knowledge is power after all. So through curiosity about our own and others states, being compassionate towards self and others, connecting in open and honest relationships and activities, we can grow our capacity, and our children’s (and support others too), for curiosity, compassion, and connection. A feedback loop that does not disregard people based on behaviour and making things “easy” but understands that the single greatest gift we can give each other is being comfortable enough with our own states than we can support someone in theirs.
Though it is important to remember that system activation looks different in everyone, and those who are neuro-diverse (such as experiencing Autism) will also have different subjective experiences and present differently. Fear may “look like” fear, but it can also look like violence, aggression, avoidance, blame, lack of accountability/responsibility, even procrastination (regardless of a neuro-diverse experience or not). Every system is wired for safety and connection, remember our systems are all looking for that, and see if that doesn’t help you to respond to yourself and others differently and with greater compassion.
It’s all about connection in the end.