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  • Writer's pictureJohn Reilly


Most people have heard of the flight, fight or freeze response that our mind/body has when faced with stress and/or danger: In response to a dangerous situation we either decide to take it on (fight), remove ourselves from the danger (take flight) or, sometimes when overwhelmed with the situation, we freeze, essentially making us vulnerable to the danger.

As a therapist, my patients often use the above responses to perceived danger, i.e. emotional danger that is felt, as opposed to real danger. In the event of real danger the fight or flight response is highly effective and often a life-saving response. However, when it is utilized in response to a perceived danger or offense, they can cause various relationship and functioning difficulties. What has been most effective after hearing about a patient’s pattern of maladaptive responses is identifying how they perceived the situation/other person at the time. In the calm of the office and removed from the situation, my patients can begin to see that what they may have felt as an external threat, really wasn’t and that the response was inappropriate or disproportionate to the situation.

Once patients begin to identify a pattern they can consider adding what I introduce as a NEW option - think and reflect. The reflective function is one that some people innately have and for others it is a skill to be developed. Thinking and reflecting can prevent much of the conflict that people experience in their lives.

Here are some patient examples you may relate with:

A spouse who likes things neat walks into the kitchen and sees dirty dishes left in the sink. He experiences this as a purposeful slight and starts to angrily clean and plans to confront his wife. This has the potential to turn into a major conflict. Talking about it in therapy, he remembers that this type of situation brings up feelings from his childhood when he felt dumped on by his parents and was given chores beyond what were expected of his siblings. Furthermore, it is discussed that his wife never has been as diligent as him in doing household chores so maybe he could consider that this is just her, not her dumping on him. While this sounds like a minor incident, it is the potential response that can cause marital conflict.

Another example is someone who was referred to me by his wife due to his frequent displays of road rage. For example, he had chased people down at times and cut them off or would lose his temper gesturing and swearing at other drivers, often who didn’t realize they had done anything wrong. This would often happen with his family in the car and would scare his wife and children. We began to address his response to someone who “cut me off!” He would immediately respond with anger and experience the other person as aggressive and disrespectful. He felt the victim of the other’s aggression and then felt justified to retaliate. What we came to realize was that many of the incidents, corroborated by his wife, involved someone who may have inadvertently swerved into their lane or perhaps simply wasn’t paying attention when he was”cut off.” (Hardly an act of willful disrespect or aggression. ) We began to introduce another option to the fight response - to think and reflect on the reality of the situation. “Why else might a person be in your lane?” Making connections to his own childhood helped him to realize how often he felt disrespected and infringed upon and ultimately how much anger he harbored inside.

Like many who begin to make a connection and put some reflection space between the event and response, his drives now are much less eventful. Now, if someone does cut him off, it’s not a big deal, we are in Jersey after all, it’s part of the deal.

Of course in life threatening events, and very often in life, Fighting, Fleeing or Ignoring the situation is the right response. But what I am urging, in inter-personal relationships, is to take time and reflect upon the RIGHT response, use your “tool box” so to speak, and pick the most appropriate response for the actual situation, not how you are perceiving the situation. I can guarantee you, with reflection, you will have less conflicts and experience more harmony in your daily life.

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