The fight or flight response is a physiological response that occurs when danger is present. It was essential to our survival in the Paleolithic period. If the Paleolithic man saw a tiger, the fight or flight response would increase adrenaline and anxiety and cause us to run away from or fight against the source of danger (i.e., the tiger).
Modern society is much different. Generally, there are no tigers running around that are threatening our survival. However, our fight or flight response is still intact, and it gets triggered when we get into arguments with our loved ones. For example, have you ever felt severely emotionally dysregulated when a loved one makes a comment that you perceive as emotionally hurtful? Does this increase your anxiety? Do you get angry? Perhaps you feel like running away or lashing out with hurtful comments. That is your fight or flight response. You feel emotionally dysregulated because your body is perceiving the hurtful comment as a tiger that is threatening your life. However, your life is not threatened. Your loved one is not trying to kill you.
When our adrenaline and anxiety increase, we become impulsive and are at risk of saying things or doing things that we may regret. It is important that we slow down our thoughts and calm down before we react to the present situation. It can be helpful to name what is happening by saying to yourself, “this is my fight or flight response perceiving a threat, but there is no physical threat.” Take a break and step away from the situation if you need to. Just let your loved one know you will come back after you calm down.
Often, having the awareness of what is happening in our body can be the first step to regulating our emotions. It can be comforting to understand why we feel anxious and wound up. Once we feel calmer, we can utilize our “observing mind” to analyze the situation free of judgements, heightened emotions, and adrenaline.
For example, perhaps you get a new job and your partner says, “I never thought you would be able to get that job.” You feel nervous that you will not be able to handle the new job and your partner’s comment triggers your insecurities. Your negative thoughts start to spiral and you feel emotionally dysregulated. You feel the impulse to lash out and make a hurtful comment in return. This is the time to remind yourself that your fight or flight response is perceiving a threat and that you need to calm your thoughts before your react. Consider the possibility that perhaps your partner is proud that you got the job because they thought it was a hard position to get hired for.
The more you pay attention to your body and raise your awareness of when you are feeling emotionally dysregulated and why, the easier it will be for you to center yourself and observe the situation free of judgments and heightened emotional sensitivity. You can look at your interactions from a objective perspective rather than an emotionally reactive perspective. This will increase the quality of your relationships and help reduce the anxiety that you experience in life.