What’s in Play Here? DiSC Style or a Nervous System Adaptation? Or?….

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One participant in a DiSC workshop had the SC style but was wondering why she was always so revved up: Go, go, go! Do, do, do! She felt rushed even when no one was rushing her. The “fast pace” is associated more with the D and i styles. Both S and C are “methodical” (a.k.a. slow and steady), so we all gathered that the “rev” was not related to her DiSC profile.

Being a polyvagal geek, it dawned on me that though her preferred “styles” were S and C (meaning, that’s how her biological spacesuit is wired and tends to operate) that she might be living her life in YELLOW feather mode — the setting for sympathetic activation. She was perhaps feeling the mobilizing juices of fight or flight. Revving and running and rushing sounds like flight to me:

This participant was also a New Yorker (NY, NY), which means she was living within a very fast-paced culture. Additionally her family praised her with comments like: “She doesn’t sit still.” Perhaps she was living in what I call ever-stressed mode.

This made me want to delve into: What’s at play here… DiSC style or adaptation? Hence, this post. DISC profiles reflect typical behavioral tendencies, while living in ever-stressed mode and/or trauma responses are deeply ingrained survival mechanisms. Stress, burnout, and trauma can sometimes manifest in ways that mimic certain DISC behaviors, but these stem from different roots.

Where Does One’s DiSC Style Come from Anyway?

DISC styles manifest based on a combination of inborn brain structure, neurotransmitter/hormone levels, how the brain is used, and what resulting habitual behavioral tendencies arise. To give an idea of the breakdown, we can look at:

Innate Physicality and Tendencies: Based on genetics, epigenetics and the physical structure of the brain, people will have innate tendencies or predispositions that align with certain DiSC styles. After all, the DiSC styles came about from examining the “emotions of normal people.” For example, a person may naturally have a more assertive and direct communication style (Dominance) because of activity in their upper left cerebral hemisphere. Or a person may be more inclined towards collaboration and building relationships (influence), which is likely due to more activity in the upper right cerebral hemisphere. These innate tendencies can provide a foundation for the development of DiSC styles. To illustrate this point, I made the below sketch based on Dario Nardi, PhD’s work. His work focused on mapping MBTI (16 personalities) to the brain via EEG research, and I share this here to illustrate that a one particular brain will have tendencies to have different areas more or less active than another brain.

Environmental and Life Experiences: DiSC styles can also be shaped by various environmental factors and life experiences. Our upbringing, social interactions, cultural influences, education, and personal experiences all play a significant role in shaping our behaviors, attitudes, and communication styles. Over time, these external influences can contribute to the development and refinement of our DiSC style because our brains are subject to neuroplasticity. The biological spacesuit is always making helpful/helpful tweaks. Additionally, physical brain injuries can manifest as a change in DiSC style as well. How we use our brain, will change our brain.

Learned Behaviors: As we grow and adapt to different social and professional environments, we learn and adopt specific behaviors and communication styles that are rewarded or reinforced by others. For example, someone who receives positive feedback for being analytical and detail-oriented may strengthen their tendencies towards Conscientiousness. Similarly, individuals who are encouraged to be more expressive and sociable may enhance their tendencies towards Influence.

What Do We See When the Biological Spacesuit Adapts for Protection?

As you would probably predict, trauma, stress-induced structural plasticity, chronic stress, burnout, etc, can collectively have a profound impact on an individual’s personality and behavioral style, often resulting in significant changes or adaptations in their behavior, attitudes, and communication patterns. Here are some ways in which trauma, etc, can shape changes in DiSC style:

Hyperarousal or Hypoarousal: Trauma can disrupt the body’s stress response system, leading to hyperarousal (excessive activation) or hypoarousal (low activation). These physiological responses can influence an individual’s DiSC style. For example, someone who experiences hyperarousal may display more dominant or assertive behaviors (Dominance) as a way to maintain control or protect themselves. Conversely, individuals in a state of hypoarousal may exhibit withdrawal or passive behaviors (Steadiness) as a means of self-preservation.

Trust and Vulnerability: Traumatic experiences can impact an individual’s ability to trust others and feel safe in relationships. This can lead to changes in their communication style. For instance, someone who has experienced betrayal or violation may become more guarded and less open in their interactions (Conscientiousness), as they perceive vulnerability as a potential risk. They may also struggle with forming and maintaining close relationships (Influence) due to fear of being hurt or rejected.

Emotional Regulation: Trauma can disrupt emotional regulation, leading to difficulties in managing and expressing emotions. Some individuals may become more reactive or volatile in their emotional responses (Dominance or influence), while others may suppress or detach from their emotions (Conscientiousness or Steadiness). These changes in emotional regulation can impact an individual’s DiSC style and interpersonal interactions.

Self-Protective Strategies: Trauma survivors often develop self-protective strategies and coping mechanisms to navigate their environment. These strategies can manifest in different DiSC styles. For example, someone who has experienced trauma may adopt a more assertive and controlling style (Dominance) as a way to establish boundaries and protect themselves. Others may adopt a more passive or accommodating style (Steadiness) to avoid conflict and maintain safety.

Sensitivity to Triggers: Trauma can create heightened sensitivity to certain triggers or reminders associated with the traumatic experience. These triggers can activate defensive or adaptive behaviors related to the individual’s DiSC style. For instance, a person who has experienced trauma may become hypervigilant and reactive in situations that resemble the traumatic event (Dominance). Alternatively, they may withdraw or become avoidant in situations that trigger distress or anxiety (Steadiness).

It’s important to note that trauma affects individuals in unique ways, and the specific changes in DiSC style can vary. I found this a worthy rabbit hole to climb into and I hope you did too. As always: Be sure to stay within your scope of practice!