Pleasing Others to Cope

Threat Management (2)

Pleasing Others to Cope Storm's Edge Therapy

Surely, there must be more than just our automatic biological reaction to immediate danger. In this globalised world of pandemics, market crashes and global warming we also have our everyday lives filled with traffic jams, office politics and exploding to-do lists. Although you may now be feeling stressed from the description so far, we can still add elements of our lives that are invisible. Change, for example, can be exciting but it is also challenging, especially when we are not quite ready for the next new trend or situation. You might not see these as dangerous, but your body does and still needs mechanisms to cope.

So following the previous blog (“Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze”) while Freeze is not, in fact, the opposite of Fight and Flight as they are all an upregulated responses; we do have down regulated hypo-arousal responses. These are responses to threats that are overwhelming, but are longer-term and could be perils we have anticipated. Here we slow our system down for the long haul, a marathon strategy rather than for a sprint.

This is not a calming down to a comfortable normal, but a state of under arousal which means that many important functions are not getting enough resources. This is important as we still have an overactive sympathetic nervous system response; it is now stress that is in the background. The body is not in a healthy balance where the parasympathetic nervous system can shift from emergency rations into “feed and breed” and then into “rest-and-digest”.

Biological systems are compromised to the point where we might be agitated or irritable, struggle to sleep, feel overwhelmed and out of control, the immune system is under-resourced leading to chronic health complaints, etc. Socially we withdraw and psychologically we abandon our needs, like not bothering to set personal goals. These are responses that are built around learnt patterns of adapting to intangible threats where we feel powerless to escape. Added is the danger of compromised warning systems due to reduced awareness leading to poor avoidance and management of threats, a classic vicious cycle.

Within the standard model that is currently evolving this is represented by the Fawning Response: pleasing a dangerous person by attending to their needs. This is a strategy to actively manipulate a situation to reduce the amount of threat by aligning with the danger.

Simply put, this is when a victim anticipates the needs of the perpetrator and gives them what they want in order to reduce the likelihood or the intensity of the threat.

This is an example of both the hypo-arousal, the slowing down of the central nervous system, and of implementing psychological patterns that have developed over time. In reality, this relational tactic can seem to be as automated and as natural as the more biological reactions to immediate danger. We see this method of making safety in the “people pleasing” strategy as well as in the Dependant Personality Disorder.

Pleasing Others to Cope Storm's Edge Therapy

In an ongoing abusive situation, the victim may feel that Fawning is both effective in reducing the danger and feel that they are in charge. However, this may be true in the sense that the situation might otherwise be much worse. But in reality, this is not a tool for creating a safe environment, instead merely a coping strategy. So the situation is, in essence, not changing and they are not in charge. This is still a person that is in danger and a body that is responding as such. Nevertheless, this is a functional long-term management strategy for an ongoing situation. Coping is good, but just coping is not good enough.

The primary danger with this response is that although it makes it possible for the person to survive the situation, it leaves them only surviving and nothing more. So while reducing the level of impact of the harm, it also reduces the motivation for the victim to find another solution. The result is that instead of working towards true safety, the person merely minimises harm. This can lead to accepting the current status quo as normal and unchangeable, maybe even acceptable or deserved. This is likely to make the feeling of powerlessness grow deeper with each bargain struck.

In this Blog we expanded from Fight/Flight/Freeze to include Fawning (pleasing), in the next Blog we discover more long-term coping mechanisms that you might be using without knowing.

Beyond Fight/Flight/Freeze

Threat Management (1)

We are generally quite familiar with descriptions of our Fight or Flight response to immediate danger; this is the up-regulation of our Central Nervous System, or a state of hyperarousal. In addition, people speak about a Freeze response; they do this implying that Freeze is the opposite response. Fight is the aggressive moving towards a physical threat with the goal of overpowering the situation. Flight is running away from danger in order to escape. While the Freeze response is seen as the involuntary shutting down of the nervous system. However, while this covers most of our reactions to immediate risk, there are a number of other ways that are as common within broader threat management but not as dramatic and easily recognised.

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Now for a little theory, according to the current Polyvagal Theory of threat management Fight or Flight are seen as the responses of the evolutionary modern myelinated vagus nerve fibres. While the Freeze response is due to the activation of the evolutionary older unmyelinated fibres. So while we share the Fight and the Flight responses with our mammalian cousins; the Freeze response is far higher up the evolutionary tree, including all vertebrates: birds, reptiles and fishes.

However, this is not the whole picture of Threat Management in our daily lives. Firstly, human threat management responses are far more inclusive than only the immediate central nervous system reactions to immediate physical danger. Our modern lifestyles can open us to stresses and dangers that are ongoing, unavoidable and invisible. This can be from the daily commute jammed into a small train carriage, to mortgage payments, and job interviews to being trolled on social media where we don’t even know who or where in the world the threat is coming from. These are all dangers that cause a response within our bodies as well as mind that need to be managed, especially if the situation cannot be resolved.

A second limitation to the Fight/Flight/Freeze framework is that these are all automatic reactions of the nervous system becoming more aroused, “getting wound up”. The Freeze Response is misunderstood as a slowing down, but it is actually still a hyperarousal response. The nervous system is still regulating upward; however, the stress systems go up so high and/or so fast that there is an overload and then complete shutdown. Commonly this is due to feeling especially powerless or due to the shock of something happening so quickly or being completely unexpected.

We as sophisticated and civilised social beings have a number of other responses to manage threats, especially ones that are not immediate and physical. Threats can also be social, psychological and structural. Such daily experiences are racism, a toxic work environment, a hyper-competitive family system, underemployment, etc are all intangible hazards that can even go unnoticed.

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Our responses go far beyond merely waiting for a trigger and then implementing an automated response. People anticipate, notice patterns and strategically plan ways to either avoid or minimise the chance of the threat developing or just reduce its intensity. Within this range of risks and responses, we probably find a greater part of our everyday lives.

We speak of Flight or Fight because it is easier to notice these situations as well as the responses within our own systems, both body and mind. This gives us the illusion that we are not under threat, if we are not in a wound-up, hyperaroused state. However, many of the threats in our daily lives are not as noticeable and we don’t have this intense fear reaction; but these threats are as real and have, at least, as much impact on our bodies and our psychology.

With this understanding of the immediate fight/flight/freeze response, now let’s look at how we cope with ongoing dangers that we don’t see – “Pleasing Others to Cope“.