Determining your sympathetic nervous system response type
If you’re looking to recover from childhood trauma or C-PTSD then I want to know what kind of F*er you are.
No, not that kind of F*er! I mean, yeah, sometimes even I’m the asshole, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Your particular F*er type is derived from the 4 types of sympathetic nervous system response, also known as the “4 Fs” in physiology.
When we’re in a stressful situation, our nervous systems switch from calm parasympathetic mode into stressed out sympathetic mode. Stressed out sympathetic mode is super useful for getting us out of a potentially harmful situation, like almost being hit by a car or seeing a rattlesnake on a hike.
But what happens when most of life is a potentially harmful situation? What happens when you spent your childhood feeling neglected, scapegoated or silenced? It turns out, your nervous system acclimates to this and decides “stressed out” is just how it is. So instead of having your normal state be the calm, serene parasympathetic mode, your “normal” state becomes a stress response.
This is what causes the true damage of C-PTSD. Over time, this stress response becomes a trauma response, and we experience much of life as if it’s unsafe or harmful.
One of the pillars to healing trauma is to retrain your nervous system to have a more healthy baseline, a “normal” that looks like being in parasympathetic (calm) mode most of the time instead of sympathetic (stress) mode. So, it’s really important to know what kind, or type, of stress or trauma response you tend to have.
This is where the 4 Fs come in.
The stress or trauma response is divided into 4 types:
- Fawn (aka Appease)
To determine which kind of F*er you are, take a look at the following descriptions, and see which one(s) fit you best. Sometimes, we tend toward two response types, so there may be more than one that fits.
Fight: If you find yourself having a short fuse or easily getting annoyed at people or situations, then you may have a strong fight response. A healthy fight response is designed so that we can attack when threatened, like when someone fights back when a mugger tries to grab their purse or wallet. But when the fight response becomes a trauma response, we tend to go into anger/fight/annoyed/dismissive mode whenever we feel slighted, ignored, or threatened. It sometimes even surfaces to preemptively avoid a potentially triggering or stressful situation, aka “strike first and ask questions later.”
Flight: Are you someone who finds a good reason to suddenly leave your new job or break up with the new person you’re dating? Do you find that the thing you *knew* would be the right next step for you never seems to be right and isn’t what you thought it would be? Then you might be have a flight response.
The flight response is designed so that we leave a potentially dangerous situation, like when someone yells “fire!” in a movie theater. However, if most of life was a dangerous situation, then the flight response can become a trauma response. This is especially true if the dangerous situations you were in as a child were emotional abuse, gaslighting or manipulation. You learn that emotional closeness is inevitably followed by betrayal or heartbreak, so you learn to leave as soon as something starts to feel good or emotionally nourishing. While this is an unconscious response (nobody thinks,”this relationship is awesome! I think I’ll sabotage it.”) it is something that you can often see as a pattern in hindsight.
Freeze: Many predatory animals (including humans) are much better at perceiving movement than form or color. So in order to avoid being caught or attacked, many prey animals (including humans!) have developed a hide and freeze response where they become very still, hyperaware, and try blending into the background in the hope that the predator won’t be able to perceive them, and will eventually give up the hunt and go away. When this becomes a trauma response it can look like introversion, dissociation (depression, ADHD, or frequent daydreaming), or shyness (social anxiety or agoraphobia). Many times, this is a preemptive freeze response, where if we check-out-before-we’ve-even-checked-in, we can avoid any potential dangerous or triggering situations.
Fawn/Appease: So in keeping with the “F” theme, the 4th F is fawn, but TBH I like appease better — it’s a more accurate descriptor. Have you ever had a creepy guy say something that felt awkward or kind of freaked you out? Like, your spidey senses say, “let’s get away from this guy and make sure he doesn’t follow?” but instead of punching him in the face and running away (hello, fight and flight!) you smile and say, “Yeah, haha. You’re totally right. Thank you!” and then you say it was nice to meet him, and you gotta go meet your friends or something like that? Then you have experienced the fawn/appease response! (Interestingly, this 4th sympathetic type of response was only added a few years ago when researchers started studying how women respond to stress and found that it was different than men’s response.) What happens when this normal stress response becomes a chronic trauma response? It can look like people pleasing, HSP or high empathy, sensory processing issues, codependency, or a fear of conflict or confrontation.
My F*er type looks like freeze with a big side helping of fawn/appease. What does this look like in my life? Here are three examples from yours truly.
When I was little, I was painfully shy. I was scared of meeting new people (especially adults), and I would run behind my mom, grab onto her leg and start to cry if anyone talked to me. This shyness was a trauma response of both freeze and appease. The “freeze” part was running, hiding and refusing to speak. The “appease” part was putting my mom back into the center of attention as the “good mom” who was protecting her child. (A good survival strategy for being the child of a narcissist is to always put the focus back on them, in any way you can.) Fortunately, I’m not shy anymore, but I can easily see how this could have become social anxiety or even agoraphobia if I hadn’t addressed it.
I’ve also noticed that my hearing is really damn good, I can often hear sounds that are too quiet for most folks. I know this is from “freezing” and listening very closely (hyperawareness) from my bedroom whenever my parents came home. I became a expert in listening to determine their mood: How were their footsteps sounding on the floor? How forcefully did they open or close the door? Which room did they go to and what were they doing in there?
I’m still working on the appease response of people pleasing and fear of conflict. This is a big one for me as the fear of retribution or angering people is still embedded in my nervous system, and I don’t want to do or say anything that could potentially upset or disappoint people. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” because this used to mean always being as perfect as possible and never making a mistake in order to minimize the chance of retribution, but I’ve been working on allowing myself to be a messy human and sometimes miss the mark without fearing repercussions.
Why is your F type important to know? There are two main benefits.
The first is you can more easily and quickly recognize and address the trauma response when it comes up. For example, if I know that I am avoiding sending an email because I’m worried about the recipient’s response, I can say to myself, “Ah! That’s my appease trigger” and I can use one of my tools to comfort, soothe and care for that inner child part of me.
The second is that it helps you figure out how to “complete the stress response” so you can get back into that calm, parasympathetic mode. For example, after a stressful day I often pick solitary “freeze” activities to reset my nervous system where I can be quiet, still and alone, like meditation, reading, watching movies, or crafting because I know that my nervous systems feels most safe in these activities and will be able to unwind and clear out any residual stress. If I were more of a “flight” type, then going for a long drive might help me reset into parasympathetic mode.
I hope this helped you identify your mix of parasympathetic responses and I’d love to know what type of F*er you are!
Drop me a note, and let me know because I like hearing from all you F*ers out there.
And don’t forget — while you may be shy or short-tempered or a chronic daydreamer, YOU ARE AN AMAZING GOD(DESS) WHO HAS SURVIVED SOME EPIC SHITSHOWS. I see you in all your human, messy glory and I love and admire you all the more for it. Rock on, my warrior friend.
A few years ago, I was listening to a podcast, and someone mentioned they had C-PTSD. I’d never heard of this before (PTSD, yes. But C-PTSD? Nope.)
I looked it up, and when I saw the definition and symptoms, I immediately realized, “Oh FFS — that’s me. I have this.”
C-PTSD stands for Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and although it shares similar characteristics with PTSD, there are some marked differences. While PTSD happens as a result of a one-time or shorter duration traumatic event, like serving on active duty in a war zone or surviving a physical attack, C-PTSD occurs when people experience trauma from on-going experiences such as childhood neglect or abuse, domestic abuse, human trafficking, or living in a war-torn or extremely impoverished region for more than a year.
Some of the symptoms experienced by people with C-PTSD include:
- Avoiding situations that remind them of the trauma
- Dizziness or nausea when remembering the trauma
- A negative self-view: Complex PTSD can cause a person to view themselves negatively and feel helpless, guilty, or ashamed. They often consider themselves to be different from other people and don’t know where they fit in.
- Changes in beliefs and worldview: People with C-PTSD may hold a negative view of the world and the people in it, feel a loss of trust in themselves or others, or feel that the world is a dangerous place.
- Emotional regulation difficulties: These conditions can cause people to have extreme emotional reactions to some situations. They may experience intense anger, fear or sadness that seems highly disproportionate for the given situation.
- Hyperarousal or hypervigilance: they are in a continuous state of high alert or feel like they are constantly “walking on eggshells” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop” much of the time.
- Relationship issues. Relationships may suffer due to difficulties with trusting and interacting, and because of a negative self-view. A person may develop unhealthy relationships because they don’t know or never had models for a healthy relationship.
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating. Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or being able to nap. Difficulty concentrating or increased procrastination. In some cases, ADHD can in fact be caused by C-PTSD.
- Detachment from the trauma: A person may dissociate, which means feeling detached from emotions or physical sensations. Some people completely forget the trauma.
- Preoccupation with an abuser: It is not uncommon to fixate on the abuser, the relationship with the abuser, or getting revenge for the abuse.
- Reliving the trauma through flashbacks and nightmares.
As I looked over this list of symptoms, I realized that I have (or had) all of these. I grew up in a home with some pretty gnarly emotional, medical, and physical abuse– and it had left its mark.
When we spend a long time in traumatic situations, especially as we’re growing and developing, our very smart body-minds adapt for survival. Entire systems change and adapt in order to be able to survive and keep us safe: our nervous system, vagal system, immune system, digestive system and the microbiome, emotional regulation and response, cognitive processing–as well as all of our energetic systems like meridians, the heart torus field, chakras and more–shift and adapt to what “normal” is in this traumatic world. When we are finally free of the traumatic situation, we now have a whole body-mind that needs to be retuned to be able to thrive in a non-traumatic world.
So, how do we heal this?
While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” fix for embodied trauma and C-PTSD, I can tell you what’s worked best for me.
- Therapy. Find yourself a good trauma-informed therapist and talk this shit out. I’ve been in therapy off and on for most of my adult life because the sneaky nature of trauma is that it can rear its ugly head in new situations all the time.
- Meditation. I first learned to meditate through a study at UCSF on “Cultivating Emotional Balance.” It took YEARS AND YEARS of practice before mediation became something that was easy for me but, damn, it was worth it. I can switch my mood from anxious to joyous in 20 minutes and can stay present and grounded in even the most triggering of situations now. One of the benefits that isn’t talked about enough is the changes that happen when we’re *not* meditating. Somehow that daily practice of 20 minutes of meditation has ripple effects outside of that time, too. I can now get into that meditative headspace immediately at almost any time of the day and feel the same effects of calm, peaceful joy that come from being in the present moment (aka mindfulness.)
- Books. I read self-help books all the time. I’ve found that there are two types that help me the most. There are books that give advice and teach you tools for a certain issue, like hypervigilance or perfectionism. These are helpful for when my symptoms arise and I need a tool or strategy to deal with them in the moment. And then there are autobiographical books that are written by people who went through something similar to me. These are sooooo validating and helpful and make me realize that what I went through was wrong and horrible (I tend to normalize things and underreact to trauma). They remind me that I am not as much of a freak or weirdo as I may imagine, and that other people have gone through the same thing and have had similar feelings and responses. (I mean, I am a freak and a weirdo, but in a totally awesome way, not in a social pariah kind of way.)
- Energy healing. Oh boy. This was so profound for me that I totally switched my life path and career so I could dive head first into learning all about this. Energy healing is so magical because unlike therapy or medication, it helps the body heal on the physical, mental, emotional, energetic, and spiritual levels all at once and in parallel. I originally started going to an energy healer to mitigate and heal side effects from chemo. One day about 3 months in, my practitioner said “Oh, you’re ready to transcend anxiety.” I looked at her and laughed right in her face. I’d been anxious since I was 3-years-old, and that’s probably just because I couldn’t remember back any earlier than that. But she did her thing and you know what? I left that office PROFOUNDLY less anxious. It felt like I’d had a 50-ton boulder lifted off me. My hypervigilance decreased markedly, my mood was more joyous and I had far fewer anxious, looping thoughts on a day-to-day basis. It was like 10 years of therapy in 3 months. So, I decided to figure out how that all worked. I’ve have spent the last 15 years studying different modalities and learning all that I can about the beautiful intersection of body, mind and spirit so that I can help others with their healing process, as well.
If you see some of yourself in what I wrote here, please know that you are not alone, that there are people and groups and tools to help you heal. And please know that I see you, I know it’s been so hard, and I think you are an amazing triumph of nature to have survived and thrived the way you have. It’s no small feat, my friend, and I am so very unabashedly proud of you, wherever you are in your healing process.
Now offering (due to popular demand!): COVID-19 vaccine prep sessions
I’ve been doing vaccine prep sessions informally with current clients, but I’m getting referrals from friends of clients who have heard about the great results my clients are having and want a session for themselves. So, I’m happy to offer these to everyone (yes, you!) as a one-time session.
I’ve developed an energy healing protocol for all the major vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson and Johnson, AstraZeneca) to help prepare your body both for the vaccine itself and for the immune response that will naturally follow. I tailor this protocol to each individual by muscle testing and taking into account individual health history, as well.
Clients report having only mild side effects from the vaccine as well as having an increased sense of calm and well-being and a decrease in anxiety and worry surrounding the vaccine. And who doesn’t want that? 😉
If you’re interested in booking a session, I recommend making the appointment 24-72 hours before your first vaccine appointment. Sessions are 30 minutes and are priced at $99.
To book in using my online booking system, please click here:
COVID-19 Vaccine Prep Session with Megan Caper
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me and I’ll be happy to answer them.
Hi My Friends —
This week, I’ve been practicing relying on others and asking for help. This is a particular challenge for me as I’ve always been one of those people who thinks, “Oh, it’s just easier if I do it myself.”
I realized recently that the reflex to “just do it myself” is a sneakily disguised defense mechanism — if I tell myself that no one can do it as well as I can and it would be easier if I do it myself, what I’m really doing is avoiding asking for help or reaching out for support.
Because relying on others and asking for help and support is uncomfortable for me.
I first realized how much I avoid relying on others when I was going through chemotherapy in my early 30s. I had a hard time taking people up on their myriad offers of help. I felt like it was an imposition or that I was asking too much, even if it was something they offered. I would tell myself, “They don’t really have the time or energy to help, they’re just trying to be nice.” (I know, the logic fails here, but our belief systems about our own worthiness don’t often pass the logic test.)
So, I started an experiment. When somebody offered something — to bring me a coffee, to clean my house, to run an errand for me — I said yes. I was very sick after all and I certainly needed the help. I didn’t think let my brain think it though, I didn’t let my inner critic tell me they were “just trying to be nice and didn’t really want to do it” and I didn’t qualify my “yes” with a “but only if you really want to” — I simply said YES.
Eventually, as with all things we practice enough, this became a habit. I am now able to let someone pick up the tab or bring me a coffee without my inner critic telling me they don’t really want to and are just trying to be nice. I can actually enjoy the feeling of someone wanting to take care of me, to do something for me. I can let that feeling wash over me and it feels good. I can actually let that love in now and feel what it’s like to be cared for in that way.
I now realize I need to take this to the next level. I need to not only accept help when it’s offered, but also ask for help. Especially to ask for help from people that haven’t offered it to me before or who I don’t know very well.
This terrifies me.
You see, I grew up in a household where if I asked for something I was told I was selfish and ungrateful. That I was self-centered, bitchy, and cruel. Essentially, that I was unworthy of whatever it was that I needed or wanted.
Asking for help was fraught with peril. Putting myself out there and admitting I needed help was often met with anger, and so I came up with the strategy of not asking. I did everything myself because that was emotionally far safer to do.
I now know that this wasn’t normal, and that asking for what you want and need from family and friends (and even strangers!) is part of the deal, part of what we’re supposed to do as humans in relationship with each other. But knowing that something isn’t normal or healthy and acting upon what I know IS normal and healthy are two different things.
So I’m practicing. I’m practicing asking for help, and then feeling that inner child brace for anger and dismissal, and letting her know it’s going to be okay. I tell her the people I have in my life love me, want to help me, see my brilliance and magnificence and want to help me make the most of it. And then I practice asking for what I need and feeling supported, loved and cared for in return.
I’m practicing letting my heart fill and feeling the tears come to my eyes when someone says “yes” and helps me in a way I believe I don’t deserve.
It’s okay to have needs. I am worthy. I deserve help, support and kindness.
If you’re someone who has trouble accepting or asking for help from others, I invite you to join me in practicing this. Practice letting others offer to take care of you first, and then practice ASKING others to take care of you. I know this can be hard to do for those of us that didn’t have a positive experience with this as children, either from our parents or from a society whose systems of oppression that told us our existence was “less than.” But I know it’s worth it. I know we all need and deserve to feel loved, cared for, protected and valued.
You are worth it. I see it and I know it. People want to care for you, it will bring them joy.
Why not give them a chance?
PS — if you know someone who needs to hear this message, can you forward this to them? (See? See how I did that? I asked for help! From total strangers! Go me!! 😃)
Notes on the Pandemic:
I was driving home from a hike with my dog the other day when the anxiety hit. I had just spent an hour hiking on a beautiful trail by the ocean, listening to an audiobook, and feeling pretty damn good. But as I got in my car and drove home, I felt a familiar tightening in my stomach. Oh hello, anxiety.
I wasn’t anxious about anything in particular, although my mind quickly found things it could grasp on to: I haven’t finished my taxes yet, I need to order a birthday present for my friend and have it shipped, I need to set up an appointment with the vet, etc. And while I admire my brain’s ability to find things to be anxious about, this isn’t my favorite place to spend time.
This sudden mood swing wasn’t an unfamiliar pattern and lately I’ve noticed it’s been worse than normal. One day (or hour) I’m fine and then the next, I’m anxious or depressed.
What is going on? Is this some sort of spiritual upgrade or slow ego death that’s making my emotions swing from one extreme to another?
And then I realized, oh no – this isn’t a spiritual upgrade. This is my ability to maintain reliable emotional regulation breaking down in the face of an entire year of pandemic and lockdown.
Emotional regulation is the ability to “influence which emotions we have, when we have them, and how we experience and express our feelings.” Good emotional regulation looks like being able to put things in perspective, comfort ourselves, and find support in friends, family or activities.
So many of my usual coping strategies that I use to stay even-keeled and release the pressure of life have been thwarted by the lockdown and the pandemic. I can’t go to cafés to work and people watch, I can’t go to movies and plays, I can’t hang out with friends and laugh and hug and physically support each other.
One whole year of being deprived of so many of my best strategies for helping me influence which emotional state I’m in has finally taken its toll. The result is an emotional rollercoaster unlike that which I’ve felt in my recent adult life.
Once I realized this I was able to take a deep breath, send some love and compassion and appreciation to my poor body and mind that has been through so much in the last year, and give myself permission to be a bit more of a mess than I usually am.
It’s okay my sweet bodymind, I’m here for you. This has been an exceptionally hard year. Rest if you need to. Play silly games on your phone if you need to. Do the rest of your work tomorrow if you need to. This is hard, and we can do hard things, but we must do them without pushing or forcing or shaming ourselves. We must do them with love and patience and care.
So be kind to yourself, my friends. Self-compassion is one of the golden keys to happiness and I think we could all use an extra dose right about now.