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 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 potentially 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 an 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.
Welcome back to my series on your intuitive brains. We’ve looked at how to get intuitive info from your heart brain and your gut brain, and now it’s time to get primal.
We’re gonna look at your pelvic brain.
As a quick recap, you have “brains” (aka dense neural networks) in several areas of your body, including your heart, your gut and your pelvis. These brains work just like the one in your head using neurotransmitters to communicate and interact with your other systems like your immune and cardiovascular systems. Each brain is also wired to receive certain types of intuitive information. Take a look at my posts (linked above) for info on your heart and gut brain if you’re interested.
So, what kind of intuitive information can we get from our pelvic brain? Our pelvic brain is tied into our creative longing and what we are meant to do and make in this world. Our pelvic brain gets fired up when we think about something that’s in alignment with what we’re supposed to do in this world, what we desire to make, create, or interact with.
When we bring to mind something that is in alignment with our soul path, the pelvic brain says, “Yes, I want that so I can create magic with it.”
Our pelvic brain gives us information on what kind of transmutation work we are here to do. We each have a special sort of magic that we’re here to harness and use. Some of us transmute words into prose, some of us transmute love into a family, some of us transmute work into money.
Now, anyone can perform any of those things, and even be successful at them, but each of us has an area (or two or three) where we can sense that we’re doing so with the help of a muse, with the support of something more than just our human powers, with a sense of an almost magical support behind our efforts. We’re supposed to bring that unique, individual magic to the world, and intuitive information from the pelvic brain can help us do just that.
Here’s how to tune into your pelvic brain’s intuition – think of a problem or an issue you are trying to move forward on. Bring to mind the various options you have. Now, bring your attention to your perineum (aka your “taint”) and the area just above and around it. Go through your options one by one and notice if the quality of feeling in your perineum changes. Are there options that make you feel more lusty, more desire, more like you want to go after it and make it yours? The ones that do are more in alignment with your pelvic brain.
Check-in with your heart brain and your gut brain as well (directions for this are in the linked posts). How do they feel about this option? Are all 3 of your brains telling you something similar, in their own way?
Getting in touch with your pelvic intuition can be a very powerful thing, especially if you’ve been in a culture or part of a marginalized group that has been taught to deny your own desires. Let me know how this goes for you. I’d love to hear your experiences – send me an email and let me know!
And if this exercise has been helpful for you, I’m teaching a free class on Zoom, “Harness the Power of Your 4 Intuitive Brains” on September 22, 2022 at 5pm Pacific Time. (I’ll be sending out the recording after for those who can’t make it live.) Sign up here and I’ll keep you in the loop with all the details:
I want to talk about your brains. Yes, brains plural. All four of them. Most of us know about one of them, maybe two, but in fact you have FOUR separate brains.
Let me explain what I mean by a brain. There are different areas in our bodies that have dense, semi-autonomous neural networks. One is in your head (what we commonly call your “brain”) but you also have dense neural networks in your heart, your gut and your pelvis.
Up until a couple years ago, medical science thought that there was only one brain (the one in your head) but recent research has definitively shown you have another one in your gut (your enteric nervous system) and there is mounting evidence for neural networks in your heart and pelvis too.
Each of these brains has different abilities and access to different ways of processing information. For a balanced bodymind, it’s important to be able to use and rely on all four brains equally.
Let me go through the information gathering and decision-making aspects of each brain so you can learn how to access that information for yourself. BTW — Each brain can do way more than what I’m describing here, but here’s a summary of the capabilities of each one for the purposes of information gathering and making wholistic decisions.
Our head brain, or what we commonly just call the brain, is very good at logical, deductive reasoning. This can come in handy when we’re trying to figure out the possible consequences of each possible decision, weigh the pros and cons, or using executive function skills to figure out the best solution. Basically, this is the brain that gives us rational, logical information and can compare and contrast the possible outcomes of that information. This brain is very helpful for interacting with the rational, ego-driven world that we live in. Most things that people would call a “good decision” (aka well reasoned, low risk, etc) come from this brain.
The heart brain considers things from an emotional perspective. How do I feel about each of these options? Which one feels in alignment with bringing more love, joy and connection into my life? Which one am I drawn to with a sense of emotional excitement, longing and fulfillment? Our heart brain gives us information on what would help us feel happy, connected and loved. Heart brain information is often not logical, for example, think of the saying “the heart wants what the heart wants” which implies that the decision isn’t logical but is compelling and fulfilling.
Gut brains are tied into our sense of instinct and intuition. Our gut brain can tell us if something is right or wrong for us (which may not be right or wrong on a logical, head brain level). Gut brain information is more grounded in that 2nd and 3rd chakra energy of creativity and individuality. If you think of the phrase, “I had a gut feeling” it means you just knew it, without having the facts or logic to back it up. Our gut brains synthesize and provide information almost instantaneously. Oftentimes a feeling of deep knowing or a sense that something is the right decision comes from our gut brains.
Finally, there’s your pelvic brain. This brain is tied into our creative longing, what we are meant to do and create and be in this world. Our pelvic brain gets fired up when we think about an option that is in alignment with what we’re supposed to do in this world, what we desire to make, create or interact with. The pelvic brain says, “Yes, I want that so I can create magic with it.” Pelvic brain gives us information on what kind of transmutation work we are here to do and how we’re supposed to bring our unique, individual magic to the world.
When you have a decision to make or are thinking about taking action (or not taking action) make sure you tune into all four of your brains and see what they have to add to the conversation. It may be challenging at first to hear the wisdom of your heart, gut and pelvic brains because we’ve all been trained by modern society to only ask our head brains for an opinion, but I promise you those other brains are there, waiting for you to ask for their input, happy to give you the best possible guidance you can get — the wisdom of your own multifaceted ways of knowing.
“When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change” ~Wayne Dyer
Recently, I wrote about neuroplasticity and how to use polysensory mental practice as a way to change the structure and function of your nervous system. Today I want to talk about another way to literally change our minds through thought work.
Thought work is the process of consciously changing our thoughts and thought patterns in response to our emotions or circumstances. Thoughts become automatic in ways that we don’t even realize. Research from the National Science Foundation has found that 95% of the thoughts you think each day are the same every day.
According to an article on NPR, “the human brain can process 11 million bits of information every second. But our conscious minds can handle only 40 to 50 bits of information a second. So, as a result, our brains sometimes take cognitive shortcuts.” These shortcuts can cause us to revert to the same thought patterns or the same reactions without ever bringing them to the conscious mind.
Thought work is a deliberate method that helps to bring those unconscious thought patterns to our conscious minds so that we can decide if the thoughts are helpful or something we’d rather change.
Now before I go on and explain how to do this, I want to make sure to make something very clear. There is a BIG difference between thought work and pushing thoughts down or spiritual bypassing.
Pushing thoughts down or pushing them away does not disrupt the unconscious thought patterns and in fact, can help to cement them in place. Pushing thoughts down is a pattern in and of itself, and often comes from believing that you or your thoughts are not valid or appropriate.
Spiritual bypassing is the idea that people who are on the spiritual path or working towards enlightenment should strive towards finding only joy in life and that having “negative vibes” is a sign of an unenlightened mind. I call bullshit on that. We all experience joy, sadness, anger, fear and grief at different points in our life and that is normal, healthy and part of the human experience. Yes, it’s always possible even in the darkest times to find something to be joyous about or grateful for – your child’s smile or some pet cuddles or a beautiful tree – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t absolutely be experiencing anger, fear, hurt or pain when the shit hits the fan.
Okay, end of rant. Back to thought work!
So, how do you start to do thought work? The first step is to start to observe your thoughts or feelings as they happen. Developing a mental non-partial observer who can witness the thoughts or feelings without judgment is key here. If you find yourself reacting to the thought or feeling, like “I shouldn’t be feeling that way” or “Why do I always get triggered around this?” then you’ve already gone on to the next thought. The trick is to catch the thoughts as they happen and be open to looking at them without judgment.
Here is my step-by-step process to doing this work:
- Identify a feeling, thought, or physical sensation you are having.
- Write one down of those three and then figure out the other two. For example, write down the physical sensation and then figure out what feeling that is and what thought you’re having about that. Or write down the thought and then observe how that makes you feel and where you feel it in your body.
- Look at the thought. Ask yourself if it is true. Would 100% of people on Earth agree that this is true? Can you think of a way of looking at it that would make it not true?
- Ask yourself — is there a stress-free reason to keep this thought?
- Reframe: what’s another thought or belief system I could adopt that would be kinder, healthier or more inspiring?
- Check in with your body and emotions again. Does this thought feel better?
Let me give you an example from my own life. Recently I wanted to ask a family member for a favor. Now, this family member has not been the most generous person in the past and I’ve been hurt by some of our past interactions. My first thought was, “they’ll never say yes and I’ll feel let down, once again.” The body sensation that went with this was tightness and heaviness in my chest, which I identified as hurt and anxiety.
I asked myself if I could be certain that my thought was 100% true. I couldn’t. Perhaps this interaction would be different, or perhaps they’d grown, or I’d grown, and our conversation wouldn’t be the same as it was before. I realized my thought was just one possible outcome and it may or may not have been true.
Then, I asked myself if there was a stress-free reason to keep this thought. The only good reason I could think of to keep the thought was to protect myself from potentially being disappointed again by this person, but that certainly wasn’t stress free. In the end I couldn’t think of a stress-free reason.
I reframed my thought as this, “I am scared of asking for this favor because of past interactions, but I know that if I offer a chance to connect, perhaps it will be different this time. I’ll never know if I don’t ask. And if they don’t say yes, I’ll be okay. I have support systems in place to be able to feel disappointed and make it through.”
Do you see how I didn’t make it all roses and moonbeams? I didn’t push it down as invalid or try to make it full of joy. I still acknowledged the reality that I had been disappointed in the past, but I created a new thought that felt more supportive and caring for myself. I checked in with my body and instead of feeling fear and hurt, I now felt braver and stronger.
And guess what? In the end, they said yes and agreed to do me the favor. Woo hoo!
If you want to know more about how to do each step of thought work and get some practice implementing it with me as your guide and coach, it’s a big part of what we cover in the first module of the Unconventional Tools for Healing group program. If you want to know more, click here and check it out for yourself!
I’m in the middle of doing research for my next book and I want to share some cool info about your nervous system and how you can change it for the better.
Many years ago when I read the book “The Holographic Universe” I remember being struck by a study by Alan Richardson where, “he took three groups of basketball players and tested their ability to make free throws. Then he instructed the first group to spend twenty minutes a day practicing free throws. He told the second group not to practice, and had the third group spend twenty minutes a day visualizing that they were shooting perfect baskets. As might be expected, the group that did nothing showed no improvement The first group improved 24 percent, but through the power of imagery alone, the third group improved an astonishing 23 percent, almost as much as the group that practiced.”
This idea stuck with me and later, when I was in my Occupational Therapy program, I read about how OTs and PTs were using what’s called “mental practice” to work with patients after strokes. This entails doing regular physical rehab and then doing additional mental visualizations of the same rehab task using “internal, cognitive polysensory images.” The results showed that those patients who did regular rehab plus mental practice had greater improvement than those doing regular rehab alone.
So, what’s going on here?
The gist of it is, our brains are meaning-making machines. They take information from our senses (sight, smell, healing, interception, etc) and decide what it means. Our brains are weaving a narrative out of disparate pieces of sensory info, and then matching that to our past experiences to create our “reality.” But here’s the twist: that info can come from the outside world (something we’re actually seeing or hearing) or it can come from the inside world (“internal, cognitive polysensory images’) and our brains don’t know the difference. That’s right, we can trick our nervous systems into thinking something is real just by imagining it well enough.
While most of the studies I’ve read talk about using this to make physical changes, like improving free throw score or improving arm use after a stroke, I decided to try using it to improve thought patterns, emotional states, and maladaptive belief systems.
My friends — it worked wonders.
Mental practice is a lot like guided imagery, but the key difference seems to be the polysensory aspect of the visualization. When we visualize doing an activity, it’s important to imagine what you’re perceiving with all of your senses. In last week’s post, I talked about bringing a caregiver character into your mind as a way to heal our inner critic voice. We can use the concepts of mental practice to not only make this a way to soothe ourselves in the moment, but to permanently change our nervous systems to a place of calm and safety.
Next time you imagine your caregiver, I want you to close your eyes, see your caregiver, and then check in with all of your senses in this visualization. What does your caregiver look like? What do they sound like? Do they have a scent? Where are you? Are you inside? Outside? What does your body feel like — is it relaxed? Heavy? Light? Can you feel anything on your skin — clothing? Wind? Imagine all of the sensory details that you can — the more, the better.
The more sensory details you can bring to this, the more your brain has no idea this is a visualization and the more it encodes it as “reality.” Which means, the next time you feel triggered, your brain will be able to call on this mental practice as a past real experience, as if it was something that really happened. And then — this is the really cool part — it will match the pattern of what’s happening (the “trigger”) to the past mental practice experience of having a wonderful caregiver and your nervous system will be soothed, it will have had the experience of a trigger, followed by the exact emotional care you needed, and it will automatically calm down and feel safe and relaxed.
Isn’t that the coolest?!
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, I’m writing a whole chapter on this in my upcoming book and I’m excited to share more ways that I use the concept of mental practice in real life to rewire our trauma brain into a happy brain.
If you try this, let me know! I love hearing stories of how this went for you.