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Using Nervous System Science to Understand Motivation: Are Clients Fearful or Shutdown?

Posted by Dee Wagner | April 16, 2018 | Comments (1)

Nervous system science helps us recognize the difference between fear that signals a need for encouragement and fear that is actually shutdown—a neurological response that accompanies a sense of hopelessness. When clients have sunk into powerlessness, is it because they sense that they are trapped? Are they facing situations that offer few options?

Trauma expert Peter Levine—author of Waking the Tiger, Trauma and Memory and In an Unspoken Voice—has spent many years studying animal responses before, during and after situations of life-threatening danger. Animals move through the physiological responses all mammals have in times of danger more efficiently than we humans do. Our greater capacity for thinking sometimes causes us to overthink, and overthinking can lead to burnout.

When we feel trapped—stuck with no way to fight or flee, we go into the nervous system state called shutdown. Our bodies shut down. This state is evolutionarily left over from lizard biology. Lizards use this shutting down of bodily functioning to conserve oxygen. Mammals have oxygen-dependent blood and, therefore, need to reserve their shutdown state for life-threatening danger.

 Are Clients Playing Possum?

The mammal most known for shutdown is the possum. Like all mammals, possums use shutdown to feign death when encountering a predator. With any luck the predator will find the “dead” possum less interesting and move on, going after other prey. When people feign ignorance, they are sometimes said to be “playing possum.”

When humans go into shutdown, they may feel “stupid” because they recognize being in a kind of stupor. They may further shut down with negative self-talk, such as, “I don’t have what it takes to be competitive,” “I don’t know why I even try anymore,” or “I feel stupid.”

Clients can hide their self-talk. When our clients have trouble engaging and retreat from the coaching relationship, this suggests some form of negative self-talk and possibly shutdown. Without an ability to recognize and work with shutdown, coaches may begin to notice frustration and even hopelessness within themselves.

How can coaches distinguish clients who are in shutdown from those who need encouragement because they are feeling timid about taking a risk?

Coaches can note how they feel in their own bodies while interacting with unmotivated clients. Body awareness skills help in situations that require nuanced scrutiny.

Generally, coaches feel a desire to be supportive when clients simply lack confidence. When encouragement would be helpful and called for, coaches sense warm feelings toward the fearful client. When clients are in shutdown, coaches can feel anxious or even aggressive and may not even mindfully notice their feelings before their own shutdown ensues. Coach shutdown can take the form of confusion and burnout.

Clients Who Tax Coach Patience

When clients are in shutdown, coaches can feel a kind of anxiousness that makes patience difficult. Shutdown signals a sense of danger, and we can join our clients in their feelings of urgency. We can sense that we feel short-tempered and impatient.

When facing life-threatening danger, a fight-or-flight response is the superior option compared to shutdown. If we can fight or flee, the likelihood of surviving is higher than if we are shut down. Shutdown eventually leads to death. When we engage with clients who are in shutdown, we may go into fight or flight in an unconscious effort to pull our foggy clients out of their shutdown.

Our shutdown clients can turn aggressive toward themselves and even toward us, further taxing any patience we may muster. Levine helps us understand that our bodies are wired to come out of shutdown by going into fight or flight. When we wake up from fogginess, we “come out swinging.” If a shutdown possum sees a path for escape from a predator, the burst of speed provided by fight or flight makes escape more likely.

Knowing what is going on with clients who have difficulty with motivation and helping those clients understand their nervous system response is a big step toward helping unmotivated clients move out of their sense of powerlessness. Recognizing client shutdown, we are more likely to stay out of fight-flight-shutdown mode ourselves.

Education Brings Enlightenment

When clients have resilient nervous system functioning, encouragement helps them overcome fear. Recognizing shutdown in clients allows us to shift out of techniques that depend on encouragement and shift into techniques that educate.

Educating our clients about the nervous system functioning that we have in common with all other mammals helps normalize fogginess and the freaking out that occurs when we wake up from the fog. Explaining what happens in our bodies when things feel life-threatening reassures clients that they are normal. Having a coach that understands helps clients find their footing again, freeing them to take steps toward success.

dee wagner headshot

Dee Wagner

Dee Wagner, LPC, BC-DMT, has worked as a counselor and dance-movement therapist in Atlanta for 25 years. She presented on nervous system functioning at ICF Converge 2017 and was a regular contributor to the ICF Blog. Other articles appear in American Journal of Dance Therapy; Body, Movement and Dance in Psychotherapy; Voices: the Art and Science of Psychotherapy (American Academy of Psychotherapists); Elephant Journal and Asana International Yoga Journal. She is co-creator of the workbook Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (1)

  1. Timothy Hall says:

    Very helpful to know this. I can be more mindfully aware when clients shut down, lessening my frustration with their inaction and increasing my understanding of what they are going through. Switching to education is the key. And now I know I should duck for cover when they wake up with fists swinging!

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