Arguing with someone I care about is one of my clearest triggers. I’ll start out fine: I’ll stay rational and reasonably calm. I’ll be able to remember to have compassion for their alternative view. If the argument continues and I feel unheard, I may start to raise my voice and feel myself getting frustrated.
But there’s always a very obvious point at which some little switch flicks in my brain, and I totally lose the capacity to engage with the other person. I’ll feel myself quite literally freeze; sometimes I’ll notice that I’m opening my mouth but I have no idea what to say. I won’t be able to follow what they are saying anymore, or even if I can I certainly can’t form my own sentences. Sometimes I know that I need us to stop talking and hug, but I can’t ask for this, let alone move my body to initiate it.
I get caught in a freeze (unable to move or speak) or sometimes in a dissociate (becoming fuzzy and as though I don’t know where I am anymore).
It’s not always this obvious or dramatic. Sometimes the pressure I feel while trying to socialise in unfamiliar groups of people leads to a freeze response. I notice that I’d love to be mingling and chatting, feeling easy about coming and going as I please, but I’ll feel rooted to one place because it feels ‘safe’.
Or sometimes if someone I love is expressing anger over something totally unrelated to me, my brain will respond as though it is directed at me. Again I’ll feel myself lose the ability to follow what they’re saying, much less ask them to slow down or stop.
The problem is that our brain doesn’t really distinguish between real or perceived threat. Each of us have our own unique cocktail of developmental trauma (unmet needs from our earliest years) and also possibly event trauma (specific overwhelming events throughout life). These traumas felt overwhelming at the time, and when we get triggered as adults we behave as though these traumas are playing out again – even when we’re not in situations that pose any real threat to our existence.
Understanding what’s actually going on in my brain when this happens has been really helpful in finding more compassion for myself, and beginning to work with my triggers to give myself more choice when I can feel myself starting to lose capacity.
Which brings me to…
The Basic Neurology of Triggers
When we feel ourselves unable to behave in rational, measured ways, and we notice that we’re getting carried away by a strong emotional response (whether that looks like rage, freezing up, or dissociating), what we are feeling is parts of our brain temporarily shutting down. This means our capacity to choose how to respond becomes impaired.
The first part of our brain that goes offline is our neocortex. This is the newest and most advanced part, in evolutionary terms. We use it for social engagement, language, and complex problem solving. It’s the part of us that allows us to make rational judgements about situations.
When the neocortex stops calling the shots, control shifts to the limbic system, our mammal brain. This area is a little older and governs a lot of our emotional responses. When we go into a fight or flight response, or a rigid freeze where we’re unable to move or speak, this is likely because control has passed from our neocortex to our limbic system.
Finally, if our mammal brain’s response hasn’t resolved the situation and we find ourselves still feeling unsafe, then our brain tries one more strategy: to act from the brain stem. This is the oldest part, the lizard brain. If we go into a limp, collapsed state, or a dissociation where we start to lose sense of where we are, then this may mean that we are now responding from our lizard brain.
The fascinating thing about all of this is that it allows us to track exactly what’s going on when we find ourselves in situations where we’re not behaving the way we’d like to be. When that switch goes inside my brain and I’m not able to follow what my partner is saying anymore, I understand why – and understanding why is the first step in doing something about it, which I’ve written more about here.
This is a big topic for me. Not because I have an awful lot to say about it, but because the resistance I feel to changing my mind is colossal.
For a whole bunch of reasons, some known and some unknown, I have reached adulthood with the belief that to change my mind is to be flakey, inconsistent, and unreliable. Sticking to my word, on the other hand, means I am deserving of trust and love, and so being dependable is something I often strive for – at the expense of taking care of my own needs.
Naturally, this comes up most acutely in relationship. Open relationships in particular require me to check in with myself often about my comfort levels – perhaps things that felt fine a month ago no longer do. Polyamory means putting myself in potentially challenging, triggering situations often, more so than when operating within the relative security of monogamous commitments. It’s crucial to be able to acknowledge that, for whatever reason, I am feeling particularly tender and would prefer a little more care than I needed before.
If this sounds familiar to you too, then know that being able to express this to those you love and have it heard and honoured is the best way to learn that changing your mind is actually ok. That it won’t necessarily lead to abandonment or rejection.
This can be done slowly and gently, too, as with learning how to be vulnerable. Try noticing the little things that don’t quite feel right: have you changed your mind about where you want to eat after your partner has made a reservation? Or have you changed your mind about the film your date has just started playing, and you’d rather watch something different? How does it feel to acknowledge this to yourself, and to speak it out loud?
The final piece is to realise that just because you have changed your mind, it doesn’t mean that the other person has to go along with your request. You can trust them to hold their own boundaries and say no if they need to. And maybe it doesn’t matter so much anyway – often, the act of noticing and voicing your change of preference goes a long way to you feeling heard and complete.
Short term thinking is a trap. The long term approach to healing and growth identifies that change happens slowly over a period of months, years, decades… A sensible mindset that doesn’t dwell on failure and instead acknowledges that the process often isn’t linear.
In these terms, short term thinking is unhelpful because it focuses on the everyday fluctuations that are inevitable, even when over a longer period you might be making huge progress. Zooming out, in this context, provides motivation in the form of comparing yourself to, say, two years ago: perhaps you’ve had a difficult week, but unless you’re only thinking short-term then this isn’t a reason to worry.
But thinking short-term can have its place, sometimes. There’s space to celebrate the small victories. Visualising where you want to be in a year or two, while a helpful practice to create focus and intention, can also feel overwhelming. It’s here that bringing things back to the everyday can help with motivation, whatever that looks like for you: maybe today you meditated for ten minutes in the morning, or you had a weekend without alcohol, or you were able to ask for something you need.
On the one hand, our big visions for the future help to keep us on track, but on the other it’s the everyday decisions and achievements that get us there at all. In this context, we can even celebrate the failures as a necessary part of the journey too. And above all of this, it’s valid to rest for a while too.
Lifting weights at the gym makes you strong. Focussed effort a few times a week, over time, is rewarded with stronger muscles and increased mobility. But while these benefits are initiated in the gym, you won’t see them until you rest: it’s on the days off, when your body can relax, that your muscles can repair, rebuild, and grow.
Realising that we want to feel more pleasure might begin a journey which involves attending workshops, reading books, sitting in meditation, maintaining daily practices… these are all ways that we might focus our attention and put work into what it is that we want.
But the actual benefits of this effort are reaped when we relax and allow our bodies to do what they know how to do. The work is needed to train ourselves, give ourselves new ways to think, and expand our idea of what is possible, and when we stop and give ourselves the space to pause we can really embody everything we’ve learned.
This means that pleasure comes when we relax and stop trying, when breathing is deep and easy and we’re not focussed on any particular goal. This can feel counterintuitive when we want to get somewhere in particular; the key is in trusting the process.
Different parts of our brains are responsible for the four responses we often default to when in a situation we perceive as threatening: people-pleasing (hyper-socialisation), fight, flight, and freeze. Because these responses don’t distinguish between real and perceived threat, it doesn’t matter whether we are actually in danger or not: most often we’ll go into one of these responses in everyday situations when in fact we’re perfectly safe, such as when we’re socialising in a large group or in a disagreement with someone we love.
What Is The Fight or Flight Response?
We’re actually talking about four different survival responses. In brief: hyper-socialisation appears as trying to keep everyone happy. This could involve telling lots of jokes, giving lots of compliments, or smiling and laughing much more than you might otherwise. The fight response can manifest as outright aggression, or as trying to exert control over a situation. Flight causes us to want to disengage, run away, and hide, while freeze involves a level of dissociation where we literally freeze up, often becoming unable to move or act.
These are emotional responses which may have been caused by unresolved trauma at some point in our history, and triggered by a current event. The more evolved part of our brain, our neocortex, would allow us to rationalise and notice that we are not in any real danger and that we don’t need to fight or dissociate. But this part of our brain doesn’t respond as quickly as the older limbic system, and instead our survival instincts kick in much faster and prevent us from behaving the way we would like to.
If this happens often and prevents you from the intimacy and anxiety-free social life you want, there are things you can do. Of course therapy may be useful, but there are also ways of helping yourself to move through these responses so they have less power over your behaviour.
1. Notice Your Fight or Flight Symptoms
The first thing to do is to become acquainted with the behaviour your stress response triggers. For people with social anxiety, socialising in groups could go one of several ways: perhaps a hyper-socialising response where they go into people-pleasing mode, desperately trying to impress everyone in the room, or a shut-down frozen response where they feel completely unable to form sentences.
Whatever the situation you struggle with, and the response it elicits, notice what happens in your body. Do you start biting your fingernails or feeling your face going red? Do you feel tingling in your limbs or squirming in your belly? Becoming more connected to your body helps to identify when your limbic system is kicking in, which is the first step to taking away its control.
This isn’t an overnight process, but with practice you can learn the patterns that signify you’re becoming stressed before it spirals too far.
2. Move Away from the Fight or Flight Response
Once you’re able to notice when you start to move into one of these responses you can work with it to move into a less anxious place. Because the fight or flight response comes from the oldest part of our brain in evolutionary terms, the trick is to stop functioning from this place and instead re-engage our neocortex so that more rational behaviour can take over again.
Grounding exercises are a good way to achieve this: asking the brain to notice the body, the environment, and acknowledge who, what, and where we are. Reminding yourself of the actual safe situation you are in rather than the perceived threat. When you first begin practicing this it may help, if possible, to take yourself into a quiet place for a few moments.
You can begin by noticing all the places your body is currently in contact with the earth, maybe your feet on the floor and your buttocks on a chair. Feel the contact, your weight, and the support of the surface. Then move your attention through the rest of your body, noticing each part in turn.
Next, take in your environment, noticing details: perhaps counting how many things of a certain colour you can see. This further helps to bring you back into the part of your brain that can analyse your current situation in a more measured way.
Finally, the breath can be helpful too. Breathing usually becomes shallow and high up in the chest when we’re stressed; by slowing the breath down and bringing it deeper into the belly you can help to move yourself out of anxiety.
3. Practice, Patience, and Compassion
This is a process that takes patience: you’re trying to change potentially deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, which could take a lot of conscious effort. These stress responses can feel familiar and comfortable, even if we regret our behaviour later. Finding a healthier version of comfortable takes time.
Finding compassion for yourself, both for the stress responses you live with and the time and effort it may take to overcome them, is important too. We all live with patterns that hinder our expression in some way because they’re not an easy thing to recognise or change, and recognising this can help to ease the journey.
Setting an intention is a simple practice, for me mainly associated with a meditation or yoga session. It’s a conscious decision to gently direct my energy towards something specific, without holding too tightly onto reaching a particular goal: making an intention conscious and then letting go of it allows it to still be present, ideally without introducing attachment to an outcome.
It changes the flavour of whatever it is I’m about to do, into an activity that I am doing with a clear idea of why I want to do it, and what its benefits could be.
Something I am learning to do more often is to use intention in other areas of my life. Setting an intention for a day, a relationship, or a conversation perhaps. Considering what’s important to me about whatever I’m about to engage in doesn’t have to be limited to sitting on a cushion or yoga mat.
Removing this limitation is helpful for a few reasons. Firstly, it encourages the habit of asking myself why I do what I do; what is it that I want? What does my body need? As someone who has, historically, found identifying what I want hard, this is good practice.
It also helps to make the implicit explicit, at least to ourselves. If we go into a potentially challenging situation without first taking a minute to find clarity on where our focus is, we leave ourselves susceptible to playing out unhelpful scripts. When we can’t identify and own what we want, we allow our unconscious to run the show.
Entering into a conversation on a sensitive topic with someone we care about could easily turn nasty. Bringing an intention, if only kept to ourselves, to find compassion or to deepen our connection can help to keep us present with what’s most important.
Finally, using intentions in day to day life is a step towards more conscious action. While the point of setting an intention is to direct ourselves in a helpful way, rather than become attached to achieving anything in particular, it’s a practice that can help to steer us towards the life we want for ourselves.
Intimacy is often closely associated with sex – to the extent that the words are sometimes interchangeable. But sex and intimacy don’t quite mean the same thing, and one is not a requirement in enjoying the other.
Sex is an easy default when trying to create connection and intimacy. Enjoying sex with a new person is no bad thing, but it can be unhelpful if we’re using it as a way to cover up a need for intimacy which we are unwilling to address.
Why do we rely so easily on sex when we want to feel close to someone new? Do we find it so difficult to connect in other ways, to show our vulnerable selves without assuming sex is what we need to feel close to someone? Are our difficulties in connecting so hidden from us in our shadow that we don’t know how else to find intimacy?
It can be interesting to look into what our real needs are, and question whether we might be covering them up by defaulting to sex as our default way to generate a connection. Perhaps slowing down and feeling more feels good, or sharing play, touch, humour, and wisdom.
Then we have more options open to us: instead of trying to find intimacy through sex, we can create satisfying intimacy first and then use sex as a way to express and deepen that intimacy.
If we take it as a given that we will tend to be attracted to people who allow us to act out childhood experiences of love and affection, meaning that we play out similar patterns in our relationships, for better or worse…
And if we accept that in order to find these people requires us to experience their body language, actions, words, and tone of voice…
Does this mean that meeting someone on Tinder and getting to know them a little over text could function as something of a pattern interrupt?
That through the screen, we miss so many vital clues about another’s behaviour that we could end up becoming invested in someone who we get along with, but who doesn’t quite fit into those patterns?
This could explain the often-repeated advice to “meet them as quickly as possible.” After all, had we met them at an event then we may instantly, unconsciously, realise that they don’t quite appeal to the parts of us that keep our patterns going, and decided we weren’t interested. Perhaps meeting online and spending some time chatting opens us up to people we may otherwise feel are not for us, which in turn allows us to question the scripts that fuel our relationships.
If I were to step into a bath of water that was far too hot, I’d immediately know from the uncomfortable feeling against my skin. After stepping out and deciding to add some cold water to make it a better temperature, I might notice that I begin to rationalise or explain what had happened: I had gotten distracted and forgotten to check the temperature, or maybe I’d tell myself that I can never get the temperature right. Perhaps this leads to frustration.
But the feeling, when I first stepped in the bath and noticed that it hurt my feet, has passed. The feeling was unavoidable and unpleasant, but short-lived; the emotional component of frustration came afterwards, caused by the conscious process of telling myself a story about the feeling.
Painful feelings can be caused by other people too, but these still pass quickly if recognised without bringing history and future into the mix, turning a feeling such as anger into sticky emotional response based on a “you always do this,” or “you never seem to care.”
A very helpful thing to be able to do is to notice when we’re turning a feeling into an emotion, so that we can acknowledge the feeling and allow it to move past instead of attaching narratives to it. While feelings are caused by things outside of us, our emotions are our responsibility.
If we can separate the two and acknowledge our feelings without attachment, then we can avoid getting stuck with unhelpful emotions. We can also begin to own our emotional responses instead of blaming another for making us feel a certain way.
It’s curious how normal it is to hear people talk of discomfort, aches, and pains: headaches and sore backs, stiff necks and tired feet, but so much more rare for us to share pleasurable sensations. We talk about feeling relaxed or comfortable, but these descriptions are not as visceral as the way we often describe the less pleasant – shooting, stabbing, dull, burning.
On a very basic level perhaps focusing on pain was important to our survival, but the emphasis we place on much of the discomfort we feel is disproportionate to its lasting effect. It could be that noticing unpleasant sensations more keenly has been vital to our survival as a species, but we also have the capacity to become aware of this and train ourselves to notice pleasure as well.
How different would our experiences be if we were tuned into pleasure more? And if sharing pleasurable sensation, in any context, was more common?
To be able to find out requires us to be able to feel pleasure in the first place – often harder than it sounds when we are out of touch with our bodies (unless they’re in pain). Shame especially can be a particularly large obstacle in the way of allowing us to feel and recognise pleasurable sensation.
Another challenge might be overcoming the vulnerability of joy: the fear of acknowledging that something feels great, that we feel great, in case it doesn’t last.
Obstacles worth overcoming, surely. Perhaps we’d be able to enjoy and appreciate our bodies more, and feel less inclined to try and change them. Maybe we wouldn’t crave external things as often to make us feel good. And sex would be all about enjoying how much pleasure we could feel, instead of focusing on a particular goal.
Certainly we’d be able to enjoy all the tingling, vibrating, bubbly, rippling, fizzing, tickly, gooey goodness.