Once your nervous system gets escalated and moves into fight/flight/freeze response, it’s next to impossible to have a useful discussion. And for many of us, we don’t even know when that response has been triggered in ourselves let alone in our partner. So we continue trying to communicate with little success. This state of nervous system arousal causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival – we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. You both may still be engaging with words, but at the core all you can focus really on is self-protection – its pretty hard to be curious when your nervous system thinks you are under attack. Our hearts are closed. Our prefrontal cortex – related to empathy, is disengaged. Our systems become focused on fear and self-protection, not love and connection.
Because nervous system arousal can happen so quickly an important aspect of improving communication is to become more aware of when your nervous system has escalated into fight/ flight/freeze.
Here are some of the signs that the nervous system is in fight/flight/freeze:
- We experience an adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol surge
- Breathing rate increases.
- Awareness intensifies and our impulses quicken.
- We become hypervigilant, “looking for the enemy”
- Fear becomes exaggerated and thinking becomes distorted as we see everything through the filter of possible danger.
Dr. Dan Siegel offers a nice demonstration that can help to make this brain process more concrete. Once you start recognizing some of the signs that you have moved into fight/flight/freeze you can start to experiment with ways of calming your nervous system before continuing a discussion with your partner. More on some of those strategies in the next post.