Today, I want to chat about my journey with my fight response. I lovingly refer to her as the Dragon Lady. If there are any Game of Thrones fans out there, I want you to think of that episode when Daenerys attacks King’s Landing. That pretty much sums up how I feel when my fight response comes on. My heart starts racing, my breathing becomes fast and shallow, I am cueing into all the danger, and the heat starts to rise. I turn red, and apparently my eyes are not friendly. Once I start yelling, I have an interesting “out of body” experience. I watch myself unload with the desire to stop, but there doesn’t seem to be an off switch until all the vile words spill out of my mouth. There is absolutely no hiding the Dragon Lady.
There is a part of all of us, that when triggered, will come out and help us establish safety. We are built to survive, so we have protective instincts that are pretty incredible. For example, I am sure you have read articles about people who are able to move impossible obstacles to save themselves, or another. Or maybe you have been able to keep yourself safe in a dangerous situation because of your stress response. The problem is that many of us have protective parts that come out at times we would like them to stay underground.
One of the common themes I see with clients is that many of us shame ourselves for our protective responses. Maybe we tend to go into fight mode, and we yell not-so-nice things at our loved one. Maybe we go into flight mode, and we threaten to leave when we really don’t want to. Maybe we freeze, and are incredibly frustrated that we couldn’t respond in the moment. Regardless of what stress response comes up, many of us struggle with accepting that part in us. However, this part of us serves an important purpose. It is the very reason we have the strength to survive the most difficult of circumstances.
I didn’t really know this part of myself as a child. I have a fairly calm temperament.
However, there is something about marriage and motherhood that brought her out. One of the reasons I love relationship work is that we learn so much about ourselves once we are in a relationship. While on our own, we may never meet these different parts of ourselves. But add in financial pressures, sleep deprivation, parenting and marriage fears -- not to mention living day in and day out with other humans -- and suddenly we get the opportunity to meet more parts of ourselves!
Well, I didn’t like this part of me for many years. I shamed myself for getting so worked up. I shamed myself for losing control. I shamed myself for the nasty words I spewed out. I compared myself to other mothers, and felt like I must be the only one who experienced such a loss of control. At home, other mothers were probably making cookies and singing while I was losing my mind. However, the interesting part about shame is that it just exacerbates the problem. As my inner critic was telling me I was a terrible mom for having a temper, my anxiety increased, which resulted in the Dragon Lady making more appearances. Funny how that works!
Luckily, I started talking to some of my mom friends. I quickly realized I was not alone. Moms who look like the most put together/calm humans agreed they also experience these moments where a part of them takes over. Some Moms described more of a flight or freeze response, as opposed to a fight response, but regardless of the mode of protection, we all had our protective part. There is nothing like sharing vulnerable experiences with friends to help us move out of fear of judgement and shame and into connection.
When I studied biological stress response, I learned that our brain literally kicks into “reptilian brain mode” when under enough stress. This is the part of the brain that focuses solely on keeping us alive. We lose our ability to communicate effectively, listen, connect, problem solve, and reason. Instead, we go straight into self-preservation, and everyone around us becomes a threat. Our children, the dog, our husband, the crumbs on the floor, the upcoming bills, the world...all of it. And once we firmly click into the stress response, we will not stop until we feel safe.
Well...that’s inconvenient, but liberating. Once I realized that there was a physiological reason for this loss of control, I started to feel less terrible. However, I still needed to figure out how to harness this piece of me, so she didn’t turn a child’s messy room into a Code Red.
I began to learn that I had more control over this stress response of mine. If I started to feel hot, I could walk away from the situation and cool down. I noticed that when I was agitated, I quit breathing. Just by shifting to a deeper breath pattern, I was able to keep the Dragon Lady from coming out.
A hot bath has always been my go to self-care, but it was only recently I realized that the reason baths are so important to me is that I naturally start to breathe deeply and relax in the water. Once you do anything that helps you take a deep breath, your body starts to feel safe again, and you quit gearing up for battle. So...do anything that helps you breathe. Deep breathe...belly breathe. This will keep you from losing control.
For the last five years, I have been sitting across from clients. I have heard this common theme from couples feeling awful about those fights that got out of control -- the words that were said that were not true; I’ve heard parents who feel like failures when they lose their tempers, and so many people assume that they are alone in this struggle!
As I sit here today, I see stress response becoming more and more prevalent. Domestic violence is increasing with all the pressures of the world. Just pull up your news feed, and you will see humans in active stress response all over the planet.
I think that people get tired of the message breathe. Maybe they assume it’s just for those yoga-hippie humans. However, if you take a moment to look around, breathing techniques are everywhere. They are in yoga and meditation. Athletes know how to harness breath for greater performance. Military and law enforcement utilize tactical breathing. Kids naturally breathe deeply through active play. Breathing is how we reset our nervous system, and it is a skill we can practice daily.
So back to the Dragon Lady -- part of my growth involved learning about stress response, and controlling when the Dragon Lady makes her appearances. The final piece was honoring instead of villainizing that part of me. I feel comforted by the fact that if I, or my humans, are in any sort of real danger, Dragon Lady wakes up and takes action. I like to know that I don’t have to think through every action if I really need to find safety.
I am excited to report that the Dragon Lady doesn’t show up too often anymore, but I don’t believe in perfection. She still comes out once in a while. The last time she really came out was about a year ago when a coach said some inappropriate words to my daughter...but that’s another story!
The key is that we can all work on understanding our physiology, so we can move from reacting to responding. It takes time and practice, but we can learn to move into acceptance of all our parts. All of the parts have a purpose, and all of them need to be understood instead of shamed.