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How to Calm An Out of Control Fight or Flight Response

Malti, my 4-year-old redfoot tortoise, doesn’t hide as much as she used to. But her hiding instinct is still quite strong and she follows its instructions to the letter!

I’ve been blogging a lot lately about my reptilian brain.

This is not just because I happen to cohabitate with two (very cute, shelled) reptilian family members.

In my personal opinion, they have a much more positive relationship with their reptilian brains than I do with my own.

When Malti or Bruce get startled or frightened or irked, their responses are instantaneous. Hiss. Bite. Withdraw into their shell. Scoot backwards. Run. Hide!

But when my own ancient reptilian brain stem gets activated and starts running endless what/if scenarios while the rest of me goes into fight-or-flight mode, instead of simply responding in kind I start to argue with my survival instinct.

Of course, my survival instinct is ancient. It has its own system of smarts, for sure, but it is just way not smart by my modern mental standards. Arguing with it about whether what just triggered it to send out “fight or flight” alerts is really scary or threatening is like trying to convince my parrot, Pearl, that he didn’t need to bite me for whatever-it-was that he just bit me for.

He will never believe me. Clearly, biting was the appropriate response, because that is what he chose to do.

Yet i persist. 

I have tried many strategies thus far to get my reptilian brain to calm down already. For it, every day is Halloween (just without all the tasty chocolate and candy).

To date, the most useful tactic has been to simply let it air its concerns. When it comes forward (yet again) with some new urgent threat alert, whether it is a police helicopter with a search light hovering over my casa or an unanswered email I sent to my mom, I stop what I am doing and listen. Calmly.

I hear it out. I evaluate its thoughts on the oh-so-urgent matter. And then I do one of two things:

a. I alter my course because yes, the threat is really scary.

b. I say to it, “thanks for letting me know but that’s not scary.”

Not surprisingly, 95 percent of the time, my response is option b.

But this works better than anything else I’ve tried because my reptilian brain feels heard and valued and I get to keep my sense of humor about the whole thing. It isn’t going to stop its threat-alerting behavior, because that is literally what it is supposed to be doing. That is its only job – its only reason for being.

So I can’t change it and I refuse to join it but at least I can find some compassion for this part of me that is paranoid 100 percent of the time.

I can pat it on the head and commiserate about how much it sucks to be afraid and then maybe we can even watch (yet another) non-threat pass by and laugh about it together.

Today’s Takeaway: Do you have a favorite strategy for calming an overactive fight-or-flight response? What about your own pets? Do you notice that your reaction to your reptilian brain system is different than theirs? Who do you think handles it best in your household?

How to Calm An Out of Control Fight or Flight Response

Shannon Cutts


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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2018). How to Calm An Out of Control Fight or Flight Response. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/mentoring-recovery/2018/11/how-to-calm-an-out-of-control-fight-or-flight-response/

 

Last updated: 24 Nov 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Nov 2018
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.