Harnessing the Strengths of Your Survival Impulses
KEEPING YOUR RESPONSES TO STRESS, UPSET AND UNCERTAINTY HEALTHY
“It was all your fault,” I hear either as a real statement or the sub-text of an accusation from family members and with my whole body, I want to run. “I’ve gotta get outta here!” I think with a sense of pressing urgency. My survival personality is the runner. I don’t want to fight. I have great difficulty in the heat of a moment responding with words (yes, freeze is another of my survival responses) so my instinct with danger is to exit stage left. Yet, in family life, leaving may not be practical or possible. Running away may even escalate the problem along with the upset feelings if family members feel ignored or stonewalled by my quick escape. So, I’ve asked myself, how can I ensure my reaction – my words and actions – are constructive and healthy when I find my survival persona taking over?
When stress runs high or anger and frustration rule, individuals – adults and kids alike – become emotionally “hijacked,” a term coined by Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book published in the mid-90s, Emotional Intelligence.1 Our primal brain assumes full command control and our thinking centers on fight, flight, or freeze. And this reflex is rigged for our survival. If we met a tiger in the woods, one of these strategies might keep us alive. But we have to consider how these reactions play out in family life since, if we follow these impulses without consideration, they could potentially lead to harming others. As we know from experience, it’s can only be a short trip from following those impulses to regret and shame.
Friend Jared says that his instinct is to fight. He admits when tensions run high, he attempts to control everyone and everything to get a handle on the situation. And when he’s unable to control others’ choices, he lashes out with his words, criticizing or judging. Placing blame outside of him, finding someone who is responsible for his anger or sadness, is what he believes will make him feel better impulsively. When triggered, he struggles to control his impulses to attack back.
On the other end of the reactionary spectrum, Alyssa confesses not only that cannot she not think, but she cannot take any action. She freezes and feels stuck in the swirl of upset and stress. While others are fighting around her, she is silent and tunneling down a pit of a lack of control and helplessness.
Our instincts will change depending upon the situation that presents us with a threat. Our child becomes defiant and refuses to do their school work. Our urge is to fight. Our spouse is angry about a loss at work and his irritability makes you want to run. But our home life triggers are common and often, predictable. At times, they can catch us by surprise particularly as our children grow, change and challenge in new ways. But also, there are a number of triggers that return time and again. These are life’s do-overs. And if we view that in that way – a do-over – then, we always have a next chance to work on our reactions and manage them in ways that offer us a sense of agency – self-power – while building up – or at least not cutting down – our closest family members. If we use those predictable triggers as rehearsals for healthy responses, then we may just prepare ourselves for any of the surprises our children can and will toss our way.
Recognizing the Pitfalls and Assets of Your Own and Your Children’s Survival Persona
Because each of the primal brain’s survival reflexes were established to protect us from harm, they can each serve us in critical ways if we recognize and focus on healthy expressions of those reflexes. There are two well-worn paths, though, that can lead us down a destructive road. These are:
1.) Self-beating — If we’ve fallen into unhealthy versions of those survival stances in the past, we may be ready to mentally beat ourselves up for our reflex. “How could you think that, feel that, or act that way?” you may recite to yourself after a particularly stressful and upsetting battle with your child. But that self-beating won’t produce the kind of turnaround we need. In fact, guilt turned to shame whittles away at our self-confidence and our ability to feel a sense of agency. We become victim to our internal states and our external influences. And if we allow this to continue over and again, we can fall into a pattern of giving away our power leading us into anxiety or depression or both as we succumb to the forces inside and around us.
2.) Other-blaming – Though we may point the finger at our child’s defiance, or our partner’s insensitivity, or our neighbor’s rudeness, we can only control our own reactions to those behaviors. If we point to others for our stress and upset, we again give away our sense of agency. The power lies in “their” hands to determine our worth, our well-being, our experience. In fact, it’s only when we accept our role, our part we play in the problem and in the solution, that we can begin to feel control and power in any given challenge.
So in these uncertain times when many forces are out of our control — like when a vaccine will be successfully tested and widely distributed for COVID-19, like when systemic racism will be fully acknowledged by each human and addressed, like when we will be able to interact with other members of our community, friends, and family without barriers like political disagreements, fear of illness, or fear of safety — how do we recover our sense of agency? How do we recognize the assets of our survival mechanisms and take control of them, so that we only use those aspects of our impulses that are helpful and not harmful? “Agency is, fundamentally, the ability to slow things down, focus, and size up your current situation and make good decisions,” write Paul Napper and Anthony Roa in the book, “The Power of Agency.”2 In order to do this, self-awareness is a required first step. So consider the following questions for yourself (then, go back through the questions and consider how those you are closest to — your children, your partner, or intimate others — might respond to those same questions).
1.) Think about the past few weeks. When did you feel a sense of overwhelm, of a lack of control? What were the specific precipatating events that contributed to your feelings?
2.) Consider moments when you were put on-the-spot with upsetting interactions. Maybe you were attacked verbally by your child. What was your first impulse — fight, flight, freeze or a combination?
3.) When upsetting events occurred, what was your self-talk saying? Were you pointing the finger at others? Were you blaming yourself?
4.) If you’ve named a few events that have been upsetting or overwhelming, can you discover a pattern consistent between those events that contributed to giving away your power — or sense of agency?
What did you learn through these questions about your moments of intense upset about your impulses? These reflections are vital to understanding how you can play on your strengths, minimize your limitations, and practice healthy responses that do no harm to yourself or others. Let’s examine further those strengths to build on…
Harnessing the Assets of the Flight Response. Whether it’s your own or your child’s response to flee from the scene of conflict, this can be a significant strength if reflected upon, planned for, and utilized in healthy ways. Certainly if your child is in a dangerous situation with a peer where their safety is at stake, you want them to leave and quickly. But what if your child has incited a power struggle with you? If you leave the room without a word, that could be considered stonewalling or a passive aggressive response. They will feel the force of your removal and may get scared or feel rejected and hurt or both. Use this strength by preparing your family in advance that this is your survival super power. Decide on how exactly you will leave. What few short, memorable words will you plan to utter — like, “I need a minute.” — to exit the room and cool down before responding further. Practice with small incidents since you’ll need the rehearsal for the bigger, more heated moments in life. If you let your family know this, when you are in conflict, they will recognize you are taking care of your needs and may not feel the same kind of fear or rejection because you have prepared them. Now your response can be healthy and strong and you can regain a sense of agency.
Harnessing the Assets of the Fight Response. Though fighting has a mixed reputation – the thrills when we watch a movie with fighting, the fear and chills when we witness fighting, the fear of ourselves when we engage in fighting — we can learn the assets of fighting and use it to our advantage while ensuring that all stay healthy and safe through our responses. Yes, it’s possible. First, physical fighting in family life is never fair. There are only winners and losers in a family physical fight and we never want to put our intimate loved ones in the position of losing. So for any who have an impulse to hit or an impulse to throw things, how can you pause and manage your reaction so that you do not lash out? Maybe fleeing is the best option? But what about our words and our tone of voice and volume? In the heat of the moment, we may be ready to yell or we may impulsively want to criticize, blame, or name-call. These can be destructive to any relationship. And in fact, yelling will only increase your bodies’ anger as it feeds the hormones required to fight when you increase your volume. But we said fighting could be an asset and it can. The trick is to convert that fight impulse into assertive, confident words and actions. And the only way we can do that if fight is our reflex is to engage in the absolutely vital pause. Stop long enough for thinking to wash over impulse and feeling. And then ask, “what can I do here to not harm myself or others?” Or “how would I feel if I were on the receiving end of the words and tone I’m considering using?” Healthy family relationships require that we assert our own needs and boundaries clearly and specifically but in non-blaming, non-judging terms. Our reflections and planning for those moments can mean the difference between strengthening our family’s resilience or tearing it down.
Harnessing the Assets of the Freeze Response. In the animal kingdom, a number of creatures will play dead when they are being stalked or attacked and the tact often works. In our lives, the freeze impulse can further annoy or frustrate the individual who is already upset since their ability to think seems impossible and they cannot do anything in a heated moment. Yet in family life, sometimes freezing is precisely what is needed to initiate the deescalation down the heated ladder. As your child is throwing you a zinger, you are stopped in your tracks and paralyzed in that moment. If you know this about yourself, reflect on what you can do in those circumstances to take care of yourself and those around you. Maybe you need to plan to plop down right where you are standing, close your eyes and return to center? Perhaps you need to tell your family in advance that your typical impulse is to freeze and when you are in that state, you’ll utter the word “freeze” and ask your family members to respect that you’ll need time to recover in those upsetting times. If you do, you’ll use this freeze impulse as your super power and model for your children a powerful self-management strategy.
At the beginning of summer, I held a webinar for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning CASEL Cares Initiative about the COVID pandemic and how we can support families. At the start, I asked participants to offer up how they were feeling. The most common response was overwhelmed. It’s no surprise that we are feeling that way since no one has been able to escape the stressors of this year. But we can become reflective about our responses to stress. If we do, we take back our sense of agency. Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning and concentration camp survivor wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”3 This is our challenge. This is our opportunity.
1. Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
2. Napper, P., & Rao, A. (2019). The Power of Agency; The Seven Principles to Conquer Obstacles, Make Effective Decisions, and Create a Life on your own Terms. NY: St. Martin’s Press.
3. Frankl, Viktor E. (Viktor Emil), 1905-1997. Man’s Search for Meaning; an Introduction to Logotherapy. Boston :Beacon Press, 1962.