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Fight or Flight or Something Else

Two weeks ago I wrote about how to work through disagreements without fighting which included several steps to stop the craziness that can ensue when people get triggered.
Today, I want to begin by explaining what happens physically and psychologically when we are triggered and invite you to take action to change that pattern.

When we are triggered, we go into “fight or flight” mode.  According to Neil Neimark, M.D., “the ‘fight or flight response’ is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.”  

When our fight or flight response is activated, adrenaline, cortisol and 30 different hormones are released into our bloodstream and our bodies experience a series of very dramatic changes. Our breath gets shorter, our veins constrict to send more blood to our limbs and major muscle groups so that we are prepared to fight or escape.  Our  awareness of our surroundings intensifies; our pupils dilate to take in more light and sharpen our sight.  Our impulses quicken and we focus on the big picture.  We are no longer able to see details or subtleties.  Almost everything in our immediate environment at this moment is perceived as a threat, and our bodies are prepared both physically and psychologically to find the enemy and either fight or flee.  

Millions of years ago the fight or flight reflex served us well.  We needed that burst of adrenaline rush just to survive.  It came in quite handy when we needed to grab the baby and run for our lives from the saber tooth tiger.

Although we rarely need this mechanism in our lives today, this ancient response is being activated frequently and is untouched by our evolution psychologically and spiritually.  When our fight or flight system is activated, we still tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. And we react that way, as though it’s life or death.   Our rational mind–where our logic and reason reside–is bypassed and we go straight into attack mode.

The answer is to recognize when we are triggered and to be able to stop ourselves in our tracks BEFORE we move full force into ‘fight or flight” mode. To do this we need to use the moment between stimulus (the immediate cause of our upset) and response–that tiny bit of time where we can still have a rational thought–to recognize what’s about to happen and then, change the course.  
If we take that moment and realize that we’ve been triggered and that we are about to move into “fight or flight” mode, we can–if we train ourselves–take a step back and shift ourselves back into our rational mind.  It helps if we immediately focus on changing our breathing to long and deep.  Then we can mentally recognize that we are in no danger.  It also helps to take a moment to force ourselves to see all the details of where we are and whom we are with.  See the reality of the situation.  Usually we are with someone we love and care about and the last thing we want to do it hurt them.  We may be feeling hurt in that moment, but if we step back and realize that this person loves and cares about us, we know they are not intentionally hurting us.  Try to give your partner, family member, or friend, the benefit of thinking that although they may have hurt you, they have not intentionally done so.  When we assume the worst, we allow ourselves to go into fight or flight mode and to react without thinking.

What you do when you are triggered determines the quality of your life and your relationships.  If you react with raised voice, anger, stabbing words, the joy and peace you find in your life will be very limited.  If you run away and shut down each time, you will be equally disappointed at the quality of your life and relationships.  If you decide to take the third option: not fighting, not fleeing, but going inside and stopping that “go to battle or run like hell” response, you will dramatically increase your joy and peace.

I invite you to begin today to train yourself to move from your instinctual, animalistc iresponse to a more spiritual and thoughtful one.  One way to increase your ability to catch yourself before your move into fight or flight mode is to spend time in meditation and/or quiet reflection each day.  Take some quiet time to walk, to be in nature, to sit in a hot bath–whatever works for you.

Just being with yourself and feeling your connection to the divine really does help so much because when we feel our oneness with everyone on the planet, we understand that we are not here to battle.  We understand that what we negatively project onto others is a reflection of our own perceived inadequacies about ourselves.
Try taking some quiet time each evening to process your day and a few quiet moments each morning to imagine and intend the peace and joy you want for your day.  If you do, you will find that it’s so much easier to find restraint when you get triggered, and it will be so much easier to take the third road.  Rather than fight or flight, you will take the road that leads to peace, to joy, and to fulfillment in all of your relationships.

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