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What It Feels Like To Be In Defense Mode


Danny Raede

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When I was deep in Defense Mode, it felt like I was constantly overwhelmed. It felt like I was constantly being attacked. Every single little thing, whether or not it actually had a logical, rational basis for being threatening, changed and colored my entire perspective. So for example: A pen could be threatening in Defense Mode, not because somebody is throwing it at you, but just because it is there, and seeing it triggers you in some way.

In Defense Mode, I often felt the need to control and keep everything exactly as it was because I was so overwhelmed that anything new just added to the overwhelm and shut me down even further.

So I was in a constant state of fear and shut down, withdrawing further and further away from the world. I got depressed, I got anxious, and it made it hard to accomplish basic functions in the world. When I was deep in Defense Mode, it literally shut down the parts of me that I needed to function in everyday life. Things like focusing, executive function, digestion, social skills, etc.  So I felt like I was broken. Then on top of that, I started to question what that meant for me as a person. Am I a good person? Do I have worth? 

It's really hard to learn social skills, executive functioning skills, or really any other life skills until you get out of Defense Mode, and until you get out of Defense Mode, it will be almost useless to try and learn because you will not be in a receptive state. It's like throwing sand into the ocean. You're not going to build an island anytime soon from doing that. 

Overwhelm From Four Main Sources

So Defense Mode is caused by constant overwhelm from four main sources. First, we have overwhelm in terms of your feelings and your sensations. That means the five senses, but also the internal sensations that your body produces as well as your reactions and responses to those sensations. Then there's overwhelm from the environment, both the physical built space, and the expectations that the space holds. For example, you might not be overwhelmed by the physical architecture of a school building, but the expectations that building contains can be incredibly overwhelming.

Then there's overwhelm from relationships (or lack there of), and finally, there's overwhelm from the body and mind, like lack of sleep, poor diet, etc.

So if you reduce overwhelm in those four areas, you get out of Defense Mode. This is not an additive process. It is a subtractive one. You don't learn to add new things and then, once you add enough things, you get out of Defense Mode. You subtract things. You learn to stop fighting, you learn to allow more, you learn to reduce stress, and you learn to take better care of yourself.

It's the difference between doing surface treatments and treating root causes. If you get to the actual root of an issue and resolve it, everything upstream changes. Versus, if all you deal with is surface treatments, then you may never change the root cause, and the problem will always remain there. 

Another example would be painting a rusty bicycle gold and calling it beautiful. No, it's still a rusty bicycle. You just painted it gold. As opposed to working to get off all of the rust, and making it shine like new, and then painting it gold. 

This does require work, but the thing is, painting the rusty bicycle gold is only fooling yourself. It doesn't actually get you the result that you want. When you do the work to scrub off all of that rust and refurbish the bike, then, and only then, does it actually start to work and shine like new with no underlying issues. 

What To Expect When Getting Out Of Defense Mode

So how do you get yourself out of Defense Mode? The first thing is to set your expectations properly. This is a skill, and like any skill you are going to suck at first. The sooner you accept this and embrace the suck, the faster you can get out of Defense Mode. Just like playing the piano for the first time, where no actual music comes out, there probably won't be any getting out of Defense Mode the first time you try it.

Don't give up! This is what is supposed to happen. Remember, this is a skill. Embrace the suck. After practicing for a few weeks, you'll start to feel what is, in my opinion, the most heavenly feeling on earth: relaxation.

With that being said, here's the basic idea behind getting out of Defense Mode: You are really, really, really stressed. So we need to do things that are really, really, really relaxing AND things that remove the stress you already have. In other words, we need to do self-care (relaxation) and emotional processing (removing stress you already have). There's more on that in the "Stress and Self-Care" section.

Going Back into Defense Mode

Don't let the simpleness of this process fool you. This doesn't need to be complicated. As we say often at AE, getting out of Defense Mode is about doing one thing ten thousand times, not doing ten thousand different things. The thing is, there is no true "out" for Defense Mode. At least not permanently. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING! It just means you are alive, because the only way to experience zero stress, and thus zero Defense Mode, is to be dead. That would be bad.

All we need to do is keep in mind that in the process of getting out of Defense Mode, you're going to get out and then you're going to go back in. At first, you'll be in Defense Mode most of the time, but then you’ll finally feel like you’ve gotten your head above water and can relax.

Then you'll start to feel Defense Mode creep back up on you. The trick is, fighting that feeling of going back into Defense Mode is just going to cause Defense Mode to happen more often. Remember: Defense Mode is about being stressed, so the trick to getting out is to relax and do self-care, not to go to war with yourself. 

Over time, the ratio of in/out of Defense Mode changes. I'd say that I am out of Defense Mode 80 percent of the time these days. That doesn't concern me at all because I know that when I go back into Defense Mode, it’s just an indicator that I am really stressed and need to take a break. When I take that break and take time to relax, calm down, and soothe myself, I get out again and can continue on with my life. Depending on how deep you are in Defense Mode, it may take a little while to feel relaxed the first time. For me, it took awhile. So be patient, and go slow. 

Think about it like this: Imagine you have no idea how the process of exercise works. The whole concept is completely unknown to you, and you are really weak. So I come along and say "Hey, I have a method to increase your strength!" So I teach you how to do push-ups, and they are really hard and painful, but you trust that somehow this is going to make things better.

The next day you wake up and are extremely sore and extremely pissed off that not only did it not work, it made things worse. Obviously, if you know the science of exercise, you know that it did work, but the way it works is completely different than you first thought.

Defense Mode works in similar ways. Getting out of Defense Mode is not linear. It's not something where you can expect to gain 5 percent capacity each week. It's an exponential experience. The more you do it, the more results you get.

There's nothing to be ashamed of here. Defense Mode is literally an injury. A nervous system that is so hypervigilant and overworked that it stops working properly. It is a perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation. 

If you'd like to learn more about Defense Mode and get our step-by-step guidance on getting out, we highly suggest you enroll in our Deep Into Defense Mode course, which you can find here.

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I am 70 years old and I may have Asperger and have probably had it since birth from high forceps delivery and my mother being an very high dosage of iodine for her enlarge grouder near her thyroid gland when she was carrying me which she had removed 2 or 3 days after I was born.

I have found I do better watching a video with my husband than I do in reading about anything and then stopping it once in a while and talking about it .  So do you have any videos we can watch for people like me who are senior citizens (I am 70 years old)?

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Although I didn't know I had Asperger's until I was 60 (I'm now 70) I can really relate to this blog. I knew I was different. I felt I was unlovable, but it made no sense to me, because I considered myself to be above average. I knew deep down inside I was special and meant to do great things in the world. My reaction to feeling defensive was to show the world that my view was the correct one and the energy to do so came from an inner volcano of rage and to live beyond reproach. I felt that going on offense and being in control was the best defense. At first I was an obnoxious, hypercritical kid who became an overachiever earning one accolade after another. But success never quelled the inner defensive rage. As I aged into my 20's and my skills developed I learned that being funny was the quickest way to take control of a social situation. That combined with proving I was the smartest, quickest wit in the room, allowed me to show off and get the 2nd best thing to love - admiration. All this time I was over-sensitive to any form of criticism. 

However, being a successful musician, composer/author allowed me to stay in control. Being the conductor, entertainer, guest speaker allowed me to be in the midst of hundreds of people and still be in control. That defensive rage fuelled a storybook life, but I was never happy no matter the level of success, admiration or control. If I gave a symposium to 400 people and 399 gave it rave reviews and 1 was negative, that one comment is what I focused on and obsessed over. Living defensively (in fear of losing control) creates a barrier that keeps happiness out of reach. 

My biggest trigger was the feeling of being disrespected to which I always over reacted - quitting jobs or transfering to a different city, walking out on relationships, burning bridges right and left. Fortunately, I always landed in a blessed situation.

For the last 30 years I've been in every kind of therapy and a variety of mental health medications all of which have been helpful in keeping me stable - less depressed or given to fits of rage. Probably the best thing I learned was to be able to laugh at myself and realize that as soon as I lost my sense of humor, I was taking myself too seriously.

But it wasn't until I was diagnosed with Asperger's that things came into focus. I now have a framework to work within and can let go of the need to control everything. I'm learning to listen to and be with people, although it's really hard. I actually have a couple of friends. My life means something. One monkey I still have on my back, is looking back on my amazing life and focusing only on the times when I was disrespected or treated unfairly. It's like some kind of curse. No one should be more grateful than I and so I am working on developing a true sense of gratitude. I don't think you can feel gratitude and defensive at the same time. 

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