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Defense Mode Defense Mode: Why They Seem So Stuck & Shutdown All The Time

The AE Team

The AE Team

11 min read
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"Everyone is always doing as well as they can within their personal limitations, their personal history, what they know and don't know and what they're feeling in that moment. If they could make a healthier decision, they would. This includes you." - Carl Alasko, PhD.

Not Now, Grandma!

Imagine a young soldier crouching behind a rocky outcropping. Bullets are flying overhead and explosions are booming in the distance. She feels trapped. Beneath her mud splattered military fatigues, her arms are trembling with fear and exhaustion. At that very moment, the soldier's elderly grandmother comes hobbling out onto the battlefield. Moving slowly but with purpose the soldier's grandmother walks right up to her granddaughter's hiding spot and says, "Today is the day. It's time for you to learn how to knit! Don't you worry, dear, I've cleared my entire schedule for our appointment today. After all, knitting is such an important life skill and it's time that you learned it!"

How do you imagine our soldier is going to react in that moment? She's probably going to yell at her grandmother and tell her to go away, which is perfectly understandable. In that moment, the soldier is already physically, mentally, and emotionally overwhelmed.

But how do you imagine grandma is going to react? Well, she's going to feel hurt. She might even get angry and start yelling in return. After all, she is here out of the goodness of her heart to teach her granddaughter how to knit! Usually when you do something nice for someone, the last thing you expect is to get yelled at. The problem here is that for some reason grandma can't see what's going on. Maybe she forgot her glasses back at home or something, but whatever the reason, grandma seems to be completely oblivious to the fact that her granddaughter is standing in the middle of a firefight. But for argument's sake, let's imagine that grandma decides to continue with her knitting lesson anyway. She pulls out the yarn and starts to demonstrate the proper techniques. Well, even if grandma is a very skilled teacher, how effective do you imagine her teaching can really be in that moment? Is the soldier capable of devoting mental and emotional resources to learning and practicing this new skill? Is the soldier likely to remember or internalize anything her grandma is saying to her? Probably not.

What Is Defense Mode?

This metaphor is an excellent illustration of what we hear at Asperger Experts call Defense Mode. We define Defense Mode as a state of overwhelm in which someone with Asperger's is scared, frustrated, or angry, as well as shut down and withdrawn. When you're in Defense Mode, everything is harder because you're constantly trying to protect yourself from the overwhelming stress of both real and imagined threats that constantly surround you. It could be that five-page English essay, or the long commute home from work where some jerk cuts you off in traffic. It could be sensory issues like an itchy shirt tag or lights that are too bright.

You can even get stressed out just from your own thoughts and beliefs, such as a belief that you're bad at math, so why bother studying? You might assume that your parents are tyrants who are trying to manipulate you whenever they ask you to help out with some household chores.

In Defense Mode, the world feels like a scary and threatening place. Much like the soldier who is hovering at the edge of fight or flight, a person in Defense Mode is much more likely to interpret a kindhearted invitation to learn knitting as a threatening attack. Thus, when dad comes into the kitchen and says, "Hey, you know the rules, no ice cream for breakfast, what if we have scrambled eggs instead?" This triggers a full on meltdown because that wasn't a casual invitation to eat a healthier breakfast. That was obviously a personal attack! It feels like dad is an angry drill Sergeant rather than a supportive parent.

Whenever the stress and overwhelm gets to be too much, Defense Mode will always manifest in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. The person in Defense Mode might get angry and start yelling or they might try to run away, perhaps by escaping into video games or some other distraction. Or, they might shut down as they keep mumbling "I don't know", in response to all of mom's questions, perhaps in the hope that she'll eventually stop the interrogating and leave.

How The Nervous System Responds (AKA "The Science-y Bit")

Defense Mode is based primarily in your sympathetic nervous system, which is basically your body's version of the panic button. The sympathetic system is your stress response. On the flip side, we have the parasympathetic system. This is known as the rest and digest system. Basically, this is the system that's engaged when everything is cool and calm and there's nothing to worry about. When you are in the parasympathetic system, the job of the nervous system is to just keep everything running smoothly. There's no need to hit the panic button right now.

Now, before we go any further, a quick disclaimer: Neuroscience is incredibly complicated. I mean, do you have any idea how many different brain areas and processes are involved just for you to be able to see the color red? So when it comes to neuroscience here, I'm going to explain things simply so simply that it's almost wrong. So if you're a professional reading this and you're thinking, "Oh, well, that's not quite exactly how..." I know, trust me, I understand. My goal here in this article is just to illustrate an idea. So with that said, we now resume our regularly scheduled program.

Okay, so we've got two systems, right? Sympathetic is the stress response. Parasympathetic is rest and digest. Now, while these two systems appear to be somewhat diametrically opposed and to some extent they are, they don't necessarily function and interact that way in terms of being like a light switch where it's black and white, all or nothing.

Emotional Resource Theory

We've all had lots of experience living in that gray scale space somewhere in between where you're not a hundred percent calm, but you're also not stressed to the max, which is a good thing. It makes sense that you should have a more extreme stress response when you're confronted with a hungry lion versus a long homework assignment. Simply put, there are different levels or intensities of your stress response. Put another way, there are different levels of Defense Mode. We call this Emotional Resource Theory and we've divided this spectrum of stress between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems into four general categories:

A line showing the four stages of Emotional Resource Theory: Nope, Defense Mode, Functional & Thriving

Day to day, each of us falls somewhere along this continuum depending on the amount of emotional resources we happen to have available. It may help to think of this in terms of money. Let's imagine being in the Nope state is like being deep in debt. I'm talking like hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. At the same time, your income is so small that you can't even keep up with the monthly accruing interest, much less paying down the principal. As a result, you'll probably stay stuck here drowning in emotional debt indefinitely unless you receive some sort of outside assistance or intervention. In terms of emotional capacity, this is like the guy who spends 16 hours a day playing video games in his parents' basement. No job, no school. I mean even the thought of trying to get a job or enroll in school is completely overwhelming. They rarely go outside and if left to their own devices and provided sufficient food, water and wifi, they would probably stay there on that couch forever. Every day they feel exhausted, frustrated and overwhelmed. The smallest little stressors can trigger intense feelings of fear, anger, and even hopelessness.

Defense Mode is a step above that. In stereotypical Defense Mode you're still somewhat in debt, but it's not deep enough to the point that you feel the need to shut down completely and just "nope" out of life. You might still be able to handle school or hold down a job, but barely. Stress, anger and fear is still your default setting most of the time. Meltdowns are still happening on a fairly regular basis and it usually only requires a small to moderate amount of stress to send you off the deep end.

Functional is like the money version of living paycheck to paycheck. You're finally out of debt, thank goodness. But there is absolutely no wiggle room between your income and your expenses. You managed to get through most days without too much overwhelm and meltdowns are pretty rare, but since your emotional savings account is basically at zero, any major unexpected stressors will instantly upset that delicate balance you've achieved sending you spiraling back down into a state of Defense Mode. At that point, you have to begin a new, the slow process of digging yourself out of emotional debt in order to get back to a functional state. Additionally, since you're living paycheck to paycheck, you rarely have any extra capacity or resources left over to give to others. You might even feel resentment towards people that ask for your help in the first place. Why can't they just fend for themselves? After all, you're barely keeping your own head above water, so how can you even begin to think about someone else's needs?

Thriving is when your income finally exceeds your expenses. It is a state of abundance in which you have plenty of savings in the bank. You still experience stress in life as we all do, but now you have tons of capacity to handle it. You rarely, if ever, get overwhelmed to the point of shutting down or losing your temper. In fact, since you have plenty of emotional resources to spare, you're more than happy to give what you can to help others. When you see someone close to you that might need some help or a listening ear, you're happy to go out of your way to sit with them and support them. You're capable of holding space for their anger and their anxiety without becoming angry or anxious yourself. Most of the time it feels like stress comes and goes very quickly for you, like water off a duck's back and you're able to respond to challenging situations with empathy and calm level headed understanding.

(Sidenote: If you'd like to go deeper and understand the biological basis for Defense Mode, read this article on the vagus nerve and why being in Defense Mode and overwhelmed isn't a moral failing.)

Getting Out Of Defense Mode

Here are 2 small but powerful habits that you can start putting into action right away in order to help yourself or someone else get out of Defense Mode. Now, this is not an exhaustive list and we cover a lot more in-depth techniques in our books & courses, but these are the foundational pieces in which all the rest of the techniques rely on.

Number one is decompression time. Have you ever noticed how you tend to feel more cranky or despondent when you're tired and you've had a long day? We tend to go into Defense Mode more when our emotional resources are low, so they need to be replenished in order to come back out of defense mode. Taking time, even just a few minutes away from the business of life to decompress and do some strategic self care is one of the best things you or your child can do to reduce overwhelm and increase your capacity to handle stress.

Number two is about building trust. In a close, healthy, parent child relationship, trust forms the bedrock of safety and effective cooperation. Once sufficient trust is present, Defense Mode naturally starts to disappear, and conversations tend to happen smoothly and easily. On the other hand, when a feeling of trust and safety is absent between you and your child, then the intention behind everything you do or say is suspect. So even the simplest of conversations can quickly spiral down into conflict. There are 4 pillars to building trust, and we discuss them here.

We hope this explanation has been helpful to understanding a bit more of why your child might be shut down & overwhelmed. If you'd like to learn more, we have a lot more to teach you in our courses & books. We'd also love to hear from you in our free community app. We're here to answer any questions we can.

Finally, we invite you to join us in our course "Freedom From Defense Mode", where we discuss all of these concepts in greater detail.

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