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Reimagining Addiction as an Adaptive Response to Threat

Jan Winhall

Four key points:

  1. Addiction is an adaptive response mediated by our autonomic nervous system.
  2. The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model™ is a new paradigm for trauma and addiction treatment.
  3. The Three Circle Practice is a practical harm reduction treatment framework.
  4. Healing comes from establishing safety in the body.

Addictions as Adaptive

When people ask me what I do for a living I have grown to expect their look of veiled disgust. They try to hide their discomfort, but after forty years of being a trauma and addiction therapist not much escapes me. When they ask me why I do such a hard job I tell them that I love what I do. Then they look incredulous, like I have truly lost my mind.

That’s because they probably think of the addicted person as hopelessly sick, with an incurable brain disease. Or they see the ‘addict’ as weak and dependent, imbued with devilish qualities that make them do bad things. While the sick or bad explanations are tenacious, they are outdated and ineffectual as evidenced by soaring rates of addiction. We are in an escalating crisis.

Forty years ago, I began a journey to understand addiction in a new way. Fresh out of graduate school I was leading a group for young women who were incest survivors. I heard many stories of powerful and twisted ways to bring relief from unbearable pain. They were binging and purging food, cutting the body, using drugs and alcohol, and engaging in unsafe sex. They knew, but did not understand, how these self-harming/addictive behaviors would activate a numb or heightened state and sense of relief.

The sick and bad explanations didn’t reflect or respect these remarkable women’s horrific experiences.  Searching for a more sophisticated understanding led me to feminist therapists such as Judith Herman.( She wrote about these self-harming and addictive behaviors as ‘sudden jolts,’ to the body related to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the part of the body that monitors our sense of safety. She explained how these jolts shift autonomic states to bring a numbing sense of relief, or activation, when there is no safety available.

The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model of Trauma and Addiction™

Years later I heard Stephen Porges present a new, phylogenetic based, Polyvagal model of the ANS. (2011) The theory teaches us that if we feel unsafe our ANS shifts states into flight/ fight to try to mobilize and act. If there is no escape the body shifts into a numbing state to ‘play dead.’  Porges called this numb state the Dorsal branch of the ANS. When numbing is prolonged, the body may see high risk behaviors to swing back to flight/fight. From a polyvagal perspective we appreciate how addictions act as ‘propellers’ that shift us back and forth from a flight/fight state to a numbing state in a valiant attempt to survive.

I realized I needed to find a body-based therapy that would help my clients find a connection back to their body’s wisdom. I found Gendlin’s work called Felt Sense/Focusing. (1978) Focusing is a way of deeply listening to the wisdom of the body by inviting clients to turn attention inwards. By inviting awareness inside, the whole sense of a situation, a Felt Sense, slowly forms. Accompanying the felt sense with compassion often invites a Felt Shift, a physical release that points us in the direction of healing. Through a polyvagal lens, the Felt Shift is seen as part of the neurophysiological shift in the ANS. The Felt Sense Polyvagal Model.™ (FSPM) harnesses these two embodied processes, the Felt Sense and the autonomic nervous system, to enable an integrative healing process.


We use a *graphic version of the model to teach clients about their ANS. They learn to identify what state they are in and to use their Focusing practice to invite the body into more safety.

Felt Sense Polyvagal Model™ Client 6Fs

Each ANS state begins with the letter F. Below we see the three main branches of the autonomic nervous system:

Flock (ventral) is the grounded safe state. Flight/Fight (sympathetic) the mobilized state that first comes to help us under threat. Fold (dorsal) is the state of collapse where we feel numb, dissociated.

The model has three other states that involve a blending of the two main ones.

Fun/Fired Up: a blending of Flock and Flight/Fight. (Play, Working for a cause)

Flow: a blending of Flock and Fold (Focusing, Meditation, lovemaking)

Fixate/Freeze is a blending of Fight/Flight and Fold. This is the addiction pathway where the body is propelling back and forth between overwhelming feelings and dissociation, aided by addictive behaviors. When we live in chronic states of threat the body becomes locked in this trauma feedback loop long after the threat is removed. The good news is that we can rewire our neuropathways to update the ANS. By engaging in neural exercises that activate states of enough safety, addictions are no longer needed.

Cairns Three Circle Practice

We use the Three Circle Practice (Cairns, 2001) as a practical, harm reduction treatment for working with addiction. By integrating the practice with the FSPM™ we engage and deepen our client’s embodied connection. Working in collaboration with the body is essential for healing.

Inner Circle: (Fixate) A concrete plan for behaviors that you are committed to changing.

Middle Circle: (Flight/Fight/Freeze/Fold) Defensive states that trigger addictions.

Outer Circle: (Flock) Safe, grounding practices for healing.

Again, using a graphic version of this model (below) we help clients heal by locating their state and practicing outer circle safety-seeking behaviors every day. Working in groups and Focusing Partnerships facilitates accountability and community.

Three Circles Practice example

Honouring the Body’s Search for Safety: Healing Moments of Liberation

Polyvagal theory provides us with a robust explanation of addictive behaviors as adaptive survival strategies that arise from the wisdom of the body. When clients realize they are not sick, or bad, it creates what I call ‘moments of liberation’. Liberation from the crushing shame cycle that addicted people feel. These moments are why I love what I do.

Jan Winhall, M.S.W.  P.I.F.O.T. is an author, teacher and seasoned trauma and addiction psychotherapist. She is an Educational Partner and Course Developer with the Polyvagal Institute where she offers a training program based on her book Treating Trauma and Addiction with the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model, Routledge 2021. Completion of four levels leads students to become Felt Sense Polyvagal Model Facilitators. She is an Adjunct Lecturer at the University of Toronto and a Certifying Co-Ordinator with the International Focusing Institute. Jan is Co-Director of the Borden Street Clinic where she supervises graduate students. She enjoys teaching all over the world.

2 Replies to “Reimagining Addiction as an Adaptive Response to Threat”

  1. Khadro

    I am a Tibetan practitioner of both Taoist and Tibetan health. My practice is based on Five Elements. I have shared and co taught this with Dr. peter Levine, Bessel Van der Kolk and also with Stephen Porges .
    I have taught the Healing sounds, Vibrations and Frequencies to groups at these Trauma Trainings, the response by practitioners receiving this information has been very positive. This works very well because the sounds, vibrations and frequencies work in ann embodied way through the Viscera, where the 5 Elemental Energies reside. These Energies circle through to your different emotional states. This simple exercise changes emotional states, thereby bringing peace and comfort to the Practioner of this practice. This brings wellbeing and healing.
    I am overjoyed that you connected to and working with Stephen Porges.
    I would be honoured and very happy to get to know you and your work. I live in Toronto, so glad that you are in Toronto.
    Peace, Khadro

  2. Addiction Treatment

    Very nice article, exactly what I needed. Very useful post I really appreciate thanks for sharing such a nice post. Thanks

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