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.
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.