Procrastination, perfectionism, self-doubt and overwhelm are survival mechanism... and how to overcome them once and for all!

Procrastination, perfectionism, overwhelm, self-doubt, anxiety are trauma responses. Survival mechanisms of the nervous system and a sign of limbic system impairment especially in entrepreneurs.

Published 26th August 2023 in Category: Nervous System

Here comes the ugly truth: procrastination is a trauma response! So are perfectionism, overwhelm and self-doubt… and many more all too familiar self-sabotaging patterns. In fact they are coping mechanisms that create a specific survival response in our nervous system.

There is nothing wrong with you!

But first of all, especially if you are self-doubting or procrastinating a lot, I really want to tell you this: there is NOTHING wrong with you! You are not lazy, defective or broken… but you are simply and unknowingly trying to put out a fire by pouring 80% rum into it. Because if we try to overwrite our body’s natural survival mechanisms with willpower and “nice” thoughts… our survival mechanisms are going to win, EVERY TIME! They wouldn’t be good survival mechanisms, if they didn’t.

But let’s dive into how these survival patterns form

(I’m going to use procrastination to exemplify this).

How we respond to pressure, threat, discomfort, challenges etc… are all things our nervous system learned when it was, like 3, 7 or 12 years old… so basically throughout our childhood, we take clues from our parents’ nervous systems to see what is dangerous, what is right, and what isn’t.

We later realise in early adulthood, oh shit I’m the spitting image of my parents or the exact opposite... and depending on whether we like what we see or not, we start to figure out what we really want, who we are etc. But we hardly ever UPDATE our nervous system.

Our nervous system gets stuck in the past

And so it is no surprise that most of our nervous systems have the emotional maturity of a child… that’s no shame and I would say that’s the case for 80-90% of adults. So basically almost everyone… unless we have done an extensive amount of inner work or had great, super conscious and aware parents who did that for us. A great example of a childlike nervous system: maybe you remember Donald Trump? Do you think he had a mature, calm, grown up nervous system? Nooooo… if he was provoked or ridiculed, he would respond, quite viciously sometimes. Now in his case he mostly used the FIGHT response.

The 4 nervous system states

But in truth we have 4 types of responses to threat or when we think we are threatened… and it doesn’t matter if that threat is physically, emotionally or even just a thought. Our response options are to this day: FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE or FAWN.

For those who haven’t heard fawn before it’s basically people pleasing as a survival mechanism to keep us safe.

And if you think, yeah heard of those fight, flight, freeze thingies before, but you are wondering, how on earth this is relevant to perfectionism or procrastination… then you are in for a surprise. Because, OMG it is more relevant than you ever thought possible. Of course these 4 responses don’t present themselves any more at such basic levels, where we had to fend off a bear or run from a tiger… BUT our bodies are physiologically in the exact same state when we nowadays argue with our partner, or get offended by a stupid comment on the internet.

It’s the exact same thing!

How fight, flight, freeze & fawn are expressed today

Of course we also don’t just flee a conversation these days, but a flight response is present when something is so uncomfortable, that we just want it over, we just want it gone… get rid of it. And sometimes this is not a physical situation but just uncomfortable emotions that we want gone. You know that gut-wrenching feeling when somebody says to you “it’s over, I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore”. Uggghh. Horrible… total flight response present, like we just want to wake up from that nightmare.

I’m giving you these emotional examples so we can uncover the more hidden scenarios that we encounter in procrastination, perfectionism or self-doubt.

Demystifying coping patterns

To demystify and uncover these patterns we need to understand where they form and emerge. That would be the limbic system. So how does the limbic system, which by the way controls the nervous system, work?

Simply put, it consists of amygdala, hippocampus and thalamus. The amygdala constantly scans and checks: are we in danger, or are we safe. Like constantly. If it detects danger it rings the alarm. The hippocampus has to do with storing memories and categorising experiences. For example traumatic experiences with a high emotional charge get stored much more permanently and as high priority for survival should future events like this re-occur. That’s why when we get 9 compliments and 1 critique, even years later we remember the critical comment more. I know it sucks.

Trauma is a pretty standard every day occurrence...

Trauma is something that completely overwhelmed our limbic brain in the moment and we didn’t know what to do. We feel helpless, overwhelmed and powerless. That’s a huge danger to our sense of self and to our survival. So the hippocampus stores anything connected to that incidence very prominently to ensure we stay away from anything similar in the future. And because our limbic brain is overwhelmed it also kind of leaves processing for “later”, because we can not do it in the moment. Processing often means making sense of something logically but most of all returning our body function and nervous system back to homeostasis (balance) and safety. With post traumatic stress disorder or cPTSD (developmental, ongoing trauma) it becomes very apparent that processing never took place fully because the people who suffer from this are often plagued by flashbacks (PTSD) or emotional flashbacks (no real memories, but intense feelings of despair, hopelessness, fear etc. often without being able to consciously connect it back to an actual event).

When our alarm system kicks in

So once the amygdala rings the alarm and checks with the hippocampus, “hey dude, how dangerous is this thing”, and the hippocampus comes back with, “oh we are in deep trouble because 20 years ago, we had something a little similar happen”, they then tell the Thalamus - which is a kind of interface between brain and body - to respond. Firstly the hypothalamus produces the hormones that help us survive, cortisol, adrenalin and norepinephrine (so called CAN hormones). So we get flooded with that. And then the Thalamus tells the nervous system to respond accordingly. And here we come back full circle to the 4 available main response types we have physically available to us: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. We all have different patterns, or different favourite patterns but to any kind of danger, be it emotionally, physically or mentally… we have a physiological response in the body. Increased heart rate, a different hormonal cocktail, widened pupils, tightened muscles (back and neck pain anyone?) etc.

How procrastination works

Coming back to procrastination, perfectionism, overwhelm and self-doubt.

You may have guessed it… they are nothing more than age-old nervous system responses. Let’s look at them individually:

Procrastination - is usually a kind of freeze response combined with flight reflexes (dissociation e.g. Netflix binge, alcohol to numb… but generally wanting for the uncomfortable situation to disappear). Most likely when we were younger, we experienced something overwhelming… we didn’t know what to do, our bodies didn’t know how to response, but it was too much. So we shut down and our clever bodies tried to secure our survival by going into freeze mode to keep us safe. Its motto could be something like, “well if we don’t do anything, maybe nothing happens to us”, just like the bird in freeze mode that holds completely still so the cat that is eying it, is not turned on to chase and kill it.

By the way chronic fatigue syndrome, depression or burnout are extreme forms of that state too!

Playing old survival scenarios

So nowadays when our memory focused hippocampus detects a similarity to the original scenario… maybe because something is overwhelming, we don’t know where to start, there is a lot of uncertainty and fear, “are we going to make that deadline”, or “am I good enough” etc…. It then basically just gets out the old canned response and plays the old survival scenario to varying degrees of intensity. Shutdown, freeze, immobilising us to avoid and save us from this horrible emotion of overwhelm… even though the original situation is long over. But the body still repeats the same pattern…. Again and again, to keep us safe. And often due to a lack of processing of the original situation.

Our bodies are not the enemy!

It is important to note, that our bodies, nervous systems and limbic brain are not the enemy here… but if we want to teach them to respond differently, it is certainly not through willpower or pushing ourselves. But it is in fact more in a style the body understands. For example, by showing it that we are safe!! That we can handle and process intense emotions. That we can process and fulfil our own needs so the body doesn’t have to do its own thing by shutting us down to stay safe etc. Anything our nervous system does at all times is to keep us safe.

PS. What do I mean by processing?

Processing in that sense can be anything from mourning, deeply feeling those emotions, crying, re-discovering and re-instating a sense of safety and trust etc.

You might think: but I don’t feel unsafe when I procrastinate. Of course not. But maybe the workload or the type of task is uncomfortable, maybe it’s your tax return and again that brings up uncomfortable, overwhelming feelings. Maybe there is a lot of uncertainty. That in itself is the definition of unsafe. Everything predictable, easy, lighthearted is safe. Anything uncomfortable or uncertain is unsafe.

How perfectionism works

What about perfectionism. Again there might have been an early trauma (and this is far likely not something you wold categorise as trauma… but mostly it could be an attachment wound)…. Where for lack of interpretation and words as a child you felt you were or you did something wrong. Now we have to think of this from the perspective of our young nervous systems… we don’t have a fully developed rational and logical mind yet, we can not regulate our strong emotions yet, we are dependant on our parents and caregivers to co-regulate with them PLUS we DEPEND on their care and love to survive. Now if your amygdala and hippocampus decide, “Shit, we are in danger, we need to ensure continued care by our caregiver… but they are saying we are wrong or we did something wrong”, this is categorised as high priority, survival dependant issue. So later on to ensure our survival, we make sure we get enough attention and care by over-achieving… by attempting perfectionism as a simple survival strategy. It’s a simple principle. In order to avoid not BEING good enough, we attempt to DO good enough. So we respond with a combination of fight and flight energy (sometimes even mixed in with a bit of freeze response). We are constantly on alert and push ourselves to do better, while at the same time we are in a highly functional flight state, where we experience nervous and frazzled energy of uncertainty… is it good enough? Can I do this? You can see just from that alone (and you probably know) how exhausting this is.

How the self-doubt pattern works

The final specific response I want to dig into is the self-doubt response. I think how overwhelm works has already become quite clear from my previous examples so we don’t need to look into this more detailed, it’s basically also a type of freeze response. But self-doubt has a slightly different origin.

And I just want to say at this point, these origins are not set in stone. We all experience life and especially trauma a little differently and at different levels. But what exactly is self-doubt?

Again, an early experience of uncertainty. And for our childlike nervous system it is HIGHLY dangerous if our parents or adults are in the wrong. Again, we completely depend on them for our survival. So if we have mixed feelings (that can be as simple as we want to cry but daddy says, “don’t cry, stop crying”) then this is confusing. Maybe our emotions are wrong? But rather than questioning our caregivers, usually our parents, which would be dangerous for our survival if they got it wrong… we start to question ourselves.

How the self-doubt pattern works

I know it sounds silly to still do that 10, 20, 30 etc. years later, but we do! If we had a healthy, mature, adult nervous system we would NOT ask ourselves things like "am I good enough". It just wouldn't EVEN MAKE SENSE! Like why wouldn’t we be good enough??! But especially women are often plagued by self doubts and it’s no surprise if you look at influences like magazine covers or Disney movies from the perspective of a child’s impressionable nervous system. That’s why reparenting ourselves no matter if we are 25 or 65 is SO important, so we get to establish new functional response patterns in our brains and bodies.

Establishing new functional patterns


I want to introduce 3 tools that can help you do just that.

The first thing is:

1) Nervous system regulation 

That’s effectively creating capacity in our nervous system by increasing our window of tolerance. A great example for that is somatic movement. If a gazelle gets hunted by a lion and escapes it sends a clear signal to the brain once the danger is over by slowing down and shaking the body. Almost as if to shake off the chase. The brain then goes from fight/flight mode into rest & repair mode. In our modern lives this rarely happens, because we are constantly ON and in some sort of fight/flight mode. So what we can do first when we notice, “oh shit this feels uncomfortable, I’m starting to procrastinate and push things away” is to just…. shake. Add a great physiological sigh to that and you are already sending 2 signals to your brain that you are safe despite that challenge.

2) Neuroplasticity - brain retraining 

The second tool is neuroplasticity… and a method called brain retraining. The good news is, that yes your brain has learned a long time ago that something is a danger, but neuroplasticity also means we can unlearn it, if we consciously work on that response pattern. So everytime we notice we are doing a certain behaviour we can for example say, “stop, stop, stop” or “not helpful, not helpful, cancel” or something like that and then follow a certain technique, certain steps to relink that situation, which was previously labeled as dangerous, to not get flagged as dangerous anymore. This is by far the most awesome and effective tool I have ever learned in my life. Because once the amygdala realises, “ok, so actually that’s not so dangerous, we don’t need to ring the alarm”, it also doesn’t tell the Thalamus to respond physically. I have healed many even physical symptoms like that including back and neck pain, general muscle tension, inflammation, gut issues and so much more.

2) Adult main personality - reparenting your nervous system

And the third one is reparenting your nervous system by increasing your adult main personality. Oh my goodness I seriously came out a changed person from this one. My personality structures changed completely. Where previously I would have automatically responded with, “oh no, what’s wrong now again, how can I fix this?”, I would now respond with, “ok, interesting, I’m loving a good challenge and I am going to make the most of it”. Change with capital C.

The most emotionally liberating experience of my life

And you know what vanished completely in the process… you guessed it… perfectionism, procrastination, and self doubt (not self reflection… that actually increased).

Do I never get overwhelmed again? No of course not, I get overwhelmed and sometimes things are too much… but I know immediately what to do, how to regulate my nervous system and return to peace, rest and digest. And then tackle the challenge from that space of freedom.

This has been the most (emotionally) liberating experience of my life.

Take the nervous system test

If you want to learn more, I recommend you start with my nervous system test, to see if and how dysregulated your limbic brain and nervous system might be.

Take the nervous system test!

Does your nervous system block your success (and health)? Do you procrastinate, feel exhausted easily, are highly sensitive, suffer from anxiety or ADHD? Check in with your nervous system and find out!

All nervous system basics in one place!

Or check out my mini crash course “Aware” on everything nervous system and limbic system related, so that you can understand all your own patterns, emotional blocks, and even chronic symptoms, fatigue and mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. It's nothing short of mind-blowing once you understand how you function and how you can ultimately thrive with your nervous system and limbic brain being your greatest advocates not adversaries.

"Aware" is valued at € 222 but I'm giving it away for only € 55, because I want AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE to have access to this life-changing knowledge. My valued blog readers can access the course at an even more insane discount of -40%. Simply use coupon code "BLOG40" at checkout.

"Aware" - mind-blowing nervous system insights!

The biggest aha moment was when I realised how much sense my protective mechanisms and even my chronic symptoms made! Get years of my research distilled into a 5 part video course.

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