The “fight or flight” response is a physiological reaction that occurs when faced with something terrifying – either mentally or physically. In the face of a threat, we release hormones that prepare our bodies to stay and fight a threat OR to run to safety.
We needed these skills when we were fighting various animals, attackers, etc. Our ancestors depended on this acute stress response for survival. There is much research on the effects of fight or flight on our bodies; living in this heightened place more often than not has it’s effects on the body. Maybe it’s why our ancient ancestors didn’t live as long?
I talk to my couples about our fight or flight responses a lot. Though the stressors have changed since our ancient ancestors’ time, our modern day stressors still elicit this reaction. Though situations may not be life threatening, our body often responds as they are. Physiologically, we gear up to fight or flee.
Think about it…
Your husband doesn’t stand up for you when your family is offering a laundry list of your failures as a mother. You start breathing a little more quickly, decide to give him the silent treatment, refuse to look him in the eye, and then proceed to sleep in the guest room that night. Maybe you’ll talk the next day, and maybe you won’t. FLIGHT.
Your wife makes a snide comment (once again) about how you didn’t do the laundry, mow the lawn, or call her to let her know when you’re coming home. Your heart starts beating quickly, you start breathing faster, and you shoot off some snide comments about her shortcomings which initiates World War III. FIGHT.
Though these threats are not life endangering in those very moments (I may argue they have physical repercussions and may be life endangering in the long haul…), our bodies respond as they are. Our sympathetic nervous system activates the adrenal glands, which sets off a very real physical response. Our bodies become aroused…and not in the good way!
Ever notice that in the onslaught of an argument, the following things start to happen?
- Your heart beats faster and your breathing becomes faster in order to provide oxygen to your body – which is needed to be able to respond to danger
- You skin gets pale or flushed. Blood flow is needed more in the muscles, brain, legs, and arms than in the surface areas of the body. In case of injury, our blood clotting ability increases to prevent excess blood loss.
- Your pupils dilate. You may not notice this, but it’s your body preparing itself to be more awake and observant in the midst of danger.
- You begin to tremble. Your muscles become tense and ready for action.
You can imagine the long term effects- psychically, mentally, and emotionally- of continuous triggers and “dangers”. This is why it’s important to notice when this stress response is being activated.
So what can you do in the moment to prevent the long term effects of this stress response?
- Take 5. Walk away for a few minutes. Let your partner know you’ll be back and that you just need a few minutes to decompress.
- Deep breathe. Focus on your breath and become mindful of what is happening around you in the present moment. If you can step outside and breathe in fresh air, even better!
- Assess the actual danger in the present situation, and, if there is no physical danger, use positive self talk to calm your body down. Thank your body for reacting the way it’s supposed to, and let it know that it can R E L A X now.
- Go back to the conversation with your partner with the intent to hear at least one new thing he/ she is saying. Lead with curiosity.
- AFTER listening, decide what you most want to communicate and state it as a “feeling”. Ex: “I feel sad when we fight.” or “I feel scared you’re going to leave when you get so angry.”. Using “I” statements will go a long way in diffusing a situation and getting to the heart of the matter.