I believe that many people can recite a fight/flight theory of emotional response, regardless of their background. It comes up everywhere – at the doctor’s office when talking about stress, anxiety or weight gain or at your child’s school when learning about schoolyard behaviour or child/parent communications. The term is tossed around pretty casually. Many know that fight/flight is a physiological fear response that could save our lives. We understand that we’re seeing mortal threat in interactions that are not actually mortally threatening and that the regular cortisol production that come with lots of flight/fight reactions is bad for our health. Many of us even know that our adrenal glands and amygdala are involved in this process. We don’t even need to be arm chair psychologists to have this awareness – we can be teachers, high school students, parents, organizational leaders, you name it.
In my case, I read and talk about fight/flight responses daily (to the joy of my husband, kids and clients). This might explain why I glossed over the critical fight/flight message in Week Two of Kelly McGonigal’s Willpower program. (See last week’s blog to understand why I’m talking about this at all.)
I glossed over the section where she compared resisting a slice of cheesecake to fighting a sabre tooth tiger and I focused on the part where she explained that our fight/flight responses suppress our impulse control. That was enough to bring to mind the past few conversations I had when I felt threatened and could almost watch the words come out of my mouth before I considered the damage they might do.
Thus, it wasn’t until later that I had a flash of understanding, when I was attempting to escape one of my thoughts. You know how it goes: “I will put this cookie into my mouth before I contemplate whether I’m hungry, whether I need it or whether I’ll regret it later. See – I’m eating it, what are you going to do now?? Eat another cookie, maybe?”
I got it! The threat I’m facing is MY thoughts. Not another person. Or a saber tooth tiger. Me. My thoughts. The ones that aren’t aligned with my goals and values.
When I’m wrestling with self-control, I’m often trying to flee from my thoughts. The very process makes me physically uncomfortable – my heart starts beating faster, my stomach feels uneasy, I feel unsafe. No wonder I seek numbing behaviour in those moments!
It’s a paradigm in which I am always the loser. Even if I have won, I have lost. Even if I have escaped, I have also been deserted – cause it’s all me. There is nothing about this kind of thinking that builds my will-power or self-control. When I position myself as threatening or something/someone I want to escape for, then it’s hard at the same time to believe I’m worth fighting for. No wonder that kind of process is exhausting. It’s also so divisive. I feel best when I feel whole and this kind of thinking is the opposite of that.
The antidote to fighting/fleeing is pausing/planning. I find it energizing in the same way that I find the fighting/fleeing tiring. As soon as I start to ask questions, a smile automatically forms on my face. It surprises me every time. As soon as I slow down, I suddenly am aware of my breathing and then I slow down even more. When I ask questions, I gain perspective. I remember what I planned. I think about what I want. Everything feels manageable in a way it didn’t moments before. I feel more acceptable in a way that I didn’t feel before. When I’m not fighting my thoughts then I can try to understand them. If I’m fighting them, then I’m just trying to annihilate them or run away from them.
The thing about changing habits is they come up every day! I can’t run away from them. I need to problem solve my way out. There’s nothing problem solving oriented about fighting or fleeing. But pausing and planning is the essence of problem solving.
Kelly McGonigal has some clear direction about maximizing the potential for shifting from Fight/Flight to Pause/Plan.
First, I need to have the most important base resource: sleep. I am finding more and more that when I have less than 7 hours of sleep that I am more likely to be in a headspace where I don’t remember my current goals, my plans, why I like the people in my life or if I have every achieved anything of value, EVER. It’s very hard to orient myself toward my aspirations in moments of fight/flight when I have no energy and can’t remember why I want to aspire at all.
McGonigal says that one way (besides sleep, which is critical) to get energy is to increase physical activity – by any amount at all. I have taken this seriously the past two weeks and have incorporated two 10 minute runs into my week. (Full disclosure: this was actually a Sweet Spot tip, but it has been reinforced by reading The Willpower Instinct.) I feel amazing after these runs and I’ve reduced the barrier for getting out the door, as it’s really hard to tell myself that I don’t have time or energy to run for TEN minutes. It builds up my reserves in incredible ways – being outdoors, keeping my promise to run and exercising my heart and lungs. McGonigal went out of her way to emphasize that research keeps showing that even the smallest intervals of exercise make significant differences in our physical health and our emotional resilience.
Another tip that McGonigal provided is to simply find time to relax. The essence is to give my body a chance to do the opposite of what it does it Fight/Flight mode. To practice being in relaxed mode. In Fight/Flight mode I breathe quickly, zero in on something specific and tense my body for combat. Taking time to relax – even for 5 minutes – helps me practice breathing deeply and unclenching my mind and body. My body could use the training.
I love how much this course feels like training – training my mind and my body (as if they’re different entities) to help me do what’s best for me. The more I train like this, the more I understand our minds/bodies as being designed for this kind of practice. I understand it this way because the feedback loops are so powerful. Doing this kind of work produces such strong results and good feelings.