Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

What Is Your Default Survival Response? (& Why It Matters)

October 10, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Season 1 Episode 34
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
What Is Your Default Survival Response? (& Why It Matters)
Show Notes Transcript


When you're in an argument or when something doesn't go according to plan - do you face it head on? Avoid conflict? Say sorry when it wasn't your fault? Shut down? We all have a default way of responding when our sense of self or safety is threatened, and that default response looks different for each of us based on biology, our past lived experiences, and the percieved intensity of the threat. In this episode I unpack identifying what your default survival mode ore response is and why that matters. 

Next week's conversation will be a natural extension from today's conversation and we'll talk about how it might be helpful to also identify the default survival responses of a partner, friends, or parent as well. Hit play to lean more!

CLICK HERE for full show notes + 3 takeaways!

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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now, let's dive in. 

We had a recent conversation inside my rise membership around identifying what your default survival mode is, and why that even matters. And I want to expand that conversation to all of you here today. So let's start by getting on the same page by what I mean. When I say survival responses. So when I say what is your default survival response, I am talking about your automatic way of responding to perceived threat or stress. Sometimes this might be referred to as survival response, survival mode trauma response, the responses I'm going to talk about today, your you've likely heard before, you're fairly familiar with at least most of them are fight flight, freeze fawn. This is also sometimes called like, please, and appease and shutdown. But before I give a description about each of those, and some examples of various responses, I want to talk about what I mean by your default response. And why I think it's helpful to identify that. 

So when it comes to our survival responses, they aren't something that we consciously choose. And I've often heard things like, I should have stood up for myself, but I just shut down or I shouldn't have said anything. But I just yelled, I don't know where that came from, I got so angry. Or I find myself saying yes to things I know that I don't want to do, like, why can't I just say no? Something we see in our practice is victims of abuse or assault, say things like why didn't I fight back harder or yell louder. And there's often a lot of shame in the way that they express that. So I'm hoping that what you learn today helps to wipe away some of that shame and gives you a new perspective on these. What become pretty hardwired in default response patterns for us. 

So like I said, we don't consciously choose which survival responses we default to your nervous system picks. These evolutionarily hardwired survival options, it picks the one that it thinks will give you the best chance of survival for that particular situation. So why we default to one survival response over another is often influenced by a combination of factors, things like straight biology, past experiences, personal coping strategies, and the specific nature of the perceived threat. So let's expand a little on some of these factors starting with biology, biology, or evolutionarily, our nervous systems preferred response to danger is activation is that fight or flight response, and usually its first flight. So imagine, out in the wild, right animals, we are just an extension of animals. Usually, if an animal perceives a threat, the first thing they're going to try to do is to run away. Now, if Running away isn't an option, then they might turn to fight or collapse and shut down, depending on the nature of the stressor. Right, if a dog is chasing a squirrel, that squirrel is gonna run, run, run, run, run, run, run until it gets away, or likely, it will run itself to a point of shutdown or it'll play dead, because it knows that it probably can't turn and fight that dog. When our system perceives a stressor that it might be able to get away from usually, we flee. And if we can't run, then we'll turn to fight. But when that perceived stressor or the stressor is perceived as a potential life threat, we often default to a shutdown state. And again, I say perceived because logically, you may understand that your boss's feedback isn't life threatening for you. But you still find yourself dissociating or shut down anyways. And we'll talk more about why in a minute. For those of you who have been victims of assault, when somebody is physically bigger and stronger than us, or even those of you who've been maybe oppressed by a system, when that system seems bigger or stronger than us, it seems like a life threat like why even bother, fight Writing are fleeing, because it's going to overpower us. Anyways, that's where that shutdown state often comes in. And again, this is not often something you consciously choose. This is your nervous system making its best call for survival, because it is better to play dead than to be dead. 

So the primary player here, and in my opinion of these factors is past experiences. So if you remember from Episode Three on, I think it's titled like how to speak the language of your nervous system. Our nervous system doesn't speak a logical language, it speaks a felt or somatic language. So this means that our nervous system doesn't really care, or perceive sometimes the facts about a situation that you're experiencing, but rather how a situation makes you feel. So if any present day situation makes you feel the same or similar to an experience from your past, you will likely have a default response. That looks the same. Why? Because you're here today. So you must have survived that experience in the past, which means to your nervous system, hey, what we did last time, we survived, so it must have worked. Do it again. Your previous life experiences, especially traumatic ones can significantly shape your default survival responses in situations today. Even if your life circumstances look considerably different than they used to. If you have had past experiences, or fight or flight helped you to survive or cope, you may be more inclined to have those as your default responses. If instead it was a piece or people please that kept you safe or got your needs met, that likely comes more automatically to you now. Or maybe it was shut down. Maybe it was getting small detaching or dissociating that helped you to survive or to cope. And this can be really common for individuals who had childhood or developmental trauma. Since often as a child, we can't realistically run away or fight off our caretakers. So instead, we shut down, we detach, or we try to please, we go into that place in a piece response. None of us had the luxury of waiting until we were adults with developed brains and life experience and context. To write the rulebook for how to stay safe cope or get our needs met in life. A much younger, tinier version of you had to figure that out. And the way that they coped, then, primarily wrote the rulebook for how you are unconsciously coping now, those are your default rules that you are following and how you navigate the world, and your relationships. And until you do something very intentional to rewire those default patterns, they will continue to play out. 

One of the other factors I mentioned was learned behaviors. And learned behaviors may play a role in your default response. Your upbringing, and the ways that you observed your parents, or role models respond to stress or conflict likely influences your default responses. So if you grew up in an environment where confrontation and fighting were the common ways of dealing with challenges, you may be more prone to a fight response. Conversely, if avoidance and withdrawal were the norm, you might lean towards freeze or to shut down or to even flight complete avoidance. And over time, you have developed coping strategies that you found to be most effective in managing stress and threats that have happened in your life. And these coping strategies can become habitual and then shape your default response patterns. So for example, somebody who learned to avoid confrontation as a way of maintaining emotional safety might again default to flight or freeze, or somebody who learned to numb with drugs or alcohol as a teen may turn to substances as a way to flee or numb feeling feelings or situations in their adult life. And one of the final things I'll say about what can play into a default response is, like I mentioned, the perceived level of threat. If you or more accurately your nervous system perceives the threat as immediate right here, right now, your body is likely going to default to a more activated response, a fight or flee response. But if it is perceiving what you're experiencing as inescapable or it feels familiar to a time in your past, a search a situation that felt inescapable what we oftentimes as practitioners will refer to as a perceived life threat. Our system defaults To freeze or shut down a level of immobilization or disconnection, this could look like what we would imagine it would look like a confrontation with somebody much bigger or stronger than you. And just because of sheer size, there's no point in fighting or running. So we shut down. This could be something that is consistent or chronic. If you're in a verbally abusive relationship, whether that's a professional relationship or personal relationship, or even just a really dismissive partner, you can perceive this experience that, you know, nothing's ever going to change, there's no way out. In parenting. This is something that we often hear that like chronic stress load of parenthood oftentimes causes parents to disconnect or dissociate or shut down. And even though you understand that those tiny creatures in your home are not necessarily a life threat, the stress and the constant chaos can read to your system is inescapable. And that's sometimes why we need to shut down or disconnect. 

So in summary, a variety of things can contribute to your default state. And it is through self awareness and regulation skills, that you are able to more consciously choose and modulate your survival responses based on the actual facts of a current situation. So with awareness and practice, and often therapeutic support, I want to give you some hope here. Because if you notice that you have default response patterns that you don't like or that aren't helpful for you, it is absolutely possible to shift or at least soften away from default responses that no longer serve you or your current reality. And instead to develop more adaptive responses, or coping skills, or even just reset strategies, after you've had a default response, that didn't look the way you might have wanted it to. But today, I don't actually want to talk about how to change your default response, that will be a future conversation. Instead, I want to help you to simply cultivate more awareness around the various responses, cultivate awareness around the fact that you likely have a default response, and maybe help you to identify what your default responses are. And even extending that to what are the default responses of your partner, or people that you are consistently in relationship with. And we'll talk about how even just this awareness before changing anything can be really, really helpful in how you choose to navigate conflict in everyday life. 

So to help you identify your default responses, I am going to give a description and example or two of each that I listed that fight flight, freeze, appease and shutdown. And I also want you to quickly note that what we found in that conversation with my members inside my rise membership was that you may have different default responses to different situations. So in that conversation, many of our members notice that they had a distinctly different default response when they were in work situations versus home when they were dealing with their partner versus kids. Now, take note that each of these responses has a physiological, psychological and behavioral component, meaning that each of these is first, a somatic or a physiological urge or response. So fight response is this urge to move towards a flight response is a physical urge to move away from freeze is this feeling of being stuck, etc, etc, etc, shut down kind of distant, disconnected away from and it's these physiological urges in our body, that drive our perception of a situation, a conversation, etc. And that when these urges go unchecked, they lead us to our behaviors, maybe that's punching, yelling, avoiding losing eye contact, etc. So let's do a quick overview of each of these different responses. I'll give a description and some examples. Know that these examples are generalized examples. There are a lot of different ways in which we uniquely experience these various survival responses and source for which one feels the most familiar to you. 

So our fight response, again, when we engage in a fight response, this is when we are faced with a stressor or a threat and we turn towards we confront that danger. So examples of this might be kind of stereotypical examples of a fight response, things like yelling or punching a wall and anger, literally getting into a fist fight. A more controlled version of this response might be to even just notice the urge to want to yell the or urge to want to kind of punch something or move towards or fight something off. Maybe you even noticed you just have clenched fist, but you're restraining yourself. For example, the other day, I kicked my son's soccer ball into the wall really, really hard. After we had childcare just like not show up for like the fourth time in a few weeks, I am really struggling right now, in navigating and finding consistent childcare with the right balance between childcare and work and mother all of it right, I think a lot of you have been there. And I looking back at this, I'm actually fine with the way that I went through that response pattern it for me, my default response is fight nine out of 10 times, I operate with a fight response first. And I typically engage in a fight response until I shut down. There is not really an in between, for me, or for a long time, there wasn't an in between. As I've gotten further into my healing, as I've developed other coping skills, I have much more awareness around this, there is definitely an in between now, and maybe I'll get more into that conversation a little bit later today. But just know that there are no right or wrong default response patterns. I am allowed to be angry, it's okay for me to be angry. And I think that kicking a soccer ball into a wall really hard, it didn't harm anybody else, it didn't harm my home. That's okay. We oftentimes I think, especially women, we're taught that like you're not allowed to be angry, don't express it, etc. Like we are allowed to feel any of the emotions that we feel, and express them in the ways that we need to might filter is that as long as it doesn't cause harm to other people, other things or even to a degree harm to yourself as well. We definitely want healthier coping skills. If our reactions are even causing harm to ourselves. All of the survival responses we're going to talk about today serves a purpose. It is first a matter of awareness, which is where we're focused today. And then you can decide if your current ways of default responding in certain situations feel helpful for you or not. My fight response in certain situations is absolutely helpful. In others, it's been incredibly detrimental to relationships to whatever my optimal end goal is. So that is fight the somatic urge to move towards to confront and those are some of the ways that it might look.

Flight. This response is characterized by the instinct to escape, or to flee from a threatening situation, again, through a nervous system lens to ensure your safety to ensure your survival. So some examples of a flight response are any type of running away from or avoiding threat, stress or conflict, this could look like ditching out on a party that makes you uncomfortable, avoiding conversations that you know will feel hard or might might result in conflict, working long hours to avoid other parts of your life. I did that for a very, very long time, as well. 

Then we have our freeze response. This involves a kind of temporary immobilization or what feels like a paralysis in response to something that feels overwhelming. So maybe this looks like in a high stress situation, maybe it's a car accident, and somebody just freezes they find themselves unable to move or to make decisions in the moment. It could look like standing still and staring blankly maybe being unable to speak up during a work meeting feeling paralyzed with fear during a job interview. You're just feeling stuck. And oftentimes we refer to this freeze response or like, Oh, I'm just procrastinating or I'm just avoiding. In a minute, we'll talk about the shutdown response. 

And I do want to make a quick distinction. The freeze response and the shutdown response are different, even if the behavior that results from this default response looks the same. If it looks like immobilization or it looks like it looks like being stuck being frozen. The difference is the way that we somatically experience it. So freeze is often characterized by a sense of felt urgency, or by racing thoughts kind of like I have to I have to I have to like but I can't, but I can't but I'm stuck. I'm so overwhelmed that I can't were shut down is more of a lifeless or flat feeling in your body. A disconnection from instead of like I have to I have to I have to but I can't it's more of like a what is it even matter? So making that quick distinction. 

Then we have our On response, I often call this our appease response because this is when we instinctively seek to appease or to please, a perceived threat or aggressor to avoid harm. So an extreme example of this may be an in an abusive relationship, a person with a fawn response may go to great lengths sometimes to placate an abusive partner, even at the expense of their own needs or their own boundaries. Again, to avoid harm. This could look like agreeing to do something that you don't want to do in order to avoid conflict, apologizing for something that isn't your fault. people pleasing in order to avoid conflict, etc. I've even seen this show up in motherhood for me occasionally. 

So like I said, sometimes we have different default response patterns in different relationships in our life. In my marriage, and in most of my relationships with people and just the world in general. Again, I default to fight and I fight, fight, fight until I'm so overwhelmed or shut down. But with my tiny human, I know that oftentimes, if I'm feeling if I'm having just like, a low capacity day, my stress buckets really full. And I know that there's something I would prefer that he doesn't have, or he doesn't do. But if I don't give it to him, it's gonna result in an a meltdown that I just don't have the capacity to navigate. I have found myself defaulting to a pattern of a piece, I'm like, Fine, here's the thing, here's the thing, or okay, go do the thing. Because I just like I don't have it in me, right, pick your battles. And again, sometimes I do that intentionally and with awareness, and sometimes I do it unintentionally. And part of my motherhood because I've noticed that that's a default response pattern for me, because I think it was a default response pattern in my upbringing as well, was kind of like the glue to avoid your big feelings, here's just the thing that you want. But that's not a pattern that I want to use with frequency in the way that I raise my kid. But awareness is key first, awareness of oh, I actually do default to that. And then sourcing for curiosity and compassion alongside that awareness. And right, just because I recognize that that's a default pattern doesn't mean that okay, it's going to change overnight, for literally years. With my son, I oftentimes catch myself in that response pattern as it's happening. As I've handed him the thing, as I've said, the yes when I really wanted to say the no, and instead of taking back what I've given to him, because that can cause some some whiplash for him, I oftentimes take that moment to just pause and say, Oh, how might I have done that differently? Not from a place of shame, blame or guilt. But ooh, I defaulted there again, what could that have looked like differently and collecting those moments of compassionate and curious exploration of how could that have look different, has really helped me to engage differently in future circumstances. So again, you'll hear me reiterate this a million times. This is about awareness. Right now, we're not trying to change anything necessarily, although things do change with awareness, which is kind of cool. 

So that final state to talk about is this shutdown state. And this response involves a withdrawal or dissociation from the situation, maybe it's emotional numbness as a way to protect yourself from an overwhelming stress. Maybe it is an active traumatic event, or maybe it is something that feels similar to a past traumatic event. So this is us completely immobilizing and disconnecting in the face of something that feels overwhelmingly threatening or stressful. Some examples of this could be if a person experiences a traumatic loss, they might enter the shutdown response, feeling emotionally numb, disconnected from their feelings, unable to engage in usual activities or relationships. This could present as feeling numb or detached during an argument with your partner. Maybe it looks like having difficulty concentrating on work after a stressful event or feedback that you got that felt like rejection. Maybe your thoughts feel dull or flat or far away. This could even manifest as feeling just like you're on autopilot. You're not really present in your life or the way that you're navigating a situation or conversation, etc. 

So again, a reminder that these are all just examples, everybody's experience of the survival responses is going to look a little bit different, and there is no right or wrong way to respond to danger. You are not right or wrong for having one particular default response and in a situation versus another. Remember, you don't choose that your nervous system chooses that urge that physiological urge that's not right or wrong. There just might potentially be ways that are more or less helpful for what you would like to see in Certain situations or relationships in your life, and the thing that matters most. And what we're focusing on today is to be aware of your responses and to explore where you might like to develop more helpful coping strategies, where you might like to notice and hit pause, reset, and then return to a conversation a circumstances situation. And this is the work that we help clients do all the time inside our coaching practice. But it first starts with awareness. So I want to just take another moment to invite you to reflect on which response feels most familiar to you. If you had to say my default survival response is, what is it I've self admitted, mine is a fight response.

And then maybe take note too, if you like me have different default responses in different situations or with different people in your life. A default response for me that I'm actively engaging with right now in motherhood with my children is peace. And I would say a third lens you could even bring into this is if you have a partner, or maybe even an adult child that you engage with often can you identify what you think their default survival response might be? And next week, we will expand on exactly that how identifying other adult humans that we are in relationship with default survival responses can be helpful in how we choose to be in and navigate those relationships. 

So to sum up, today's conversation, here are our three tangible takeaways. Number one, we all have default survival responses, take time to identify what yours are. 

Number two, whatever your default survival response is, in any situation, remember that although you do not consciously choose that response, you are responsible for the behavior that comes with it, and the impact that that has on situations and relationships in your life. And know that every default response that you have, or that somebody else has was formed with positive intent to protect you to get your needs met to help you cope. The disconnect arises when the survival response patterns, or at least the intensity or flavor of them, is no longer needed. It no longer matches what you are currently experiencing in your life. 

And number three, a variety of things can contribute to your default state. And it is through self awareness and regulation skills, that you are able to more consciously choose and modulate your survival responses based on the actual facts of a situation. It's with awareness, practice, and often therapeutic support that it is absolutely possible to shift or at least soften away from default response patterns that no longer serve you and your current reality. And instead to develop more adaptive responses and coping strategies, and just a final plug for next week's conversation, which is going to be a very natural extension of our conversation from this week, where we will talk a lot more about the value in being able to identify or cultivate awareness around. Maybe it's your partner or a parent and adult child, just another adult in your life, your best friend, even how you can benefit from identifying their default response patterns in the ways that you want to navigate, maybe set boundaries in or deepen that relationship in some really tangible and meaningful ways. So I'll see you next week in that conversation. And until then, I'm sending you so much hope and healing. Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside rise my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety and depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.

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