When we experience strong negative emotions we often want to make major, life-changing decisions, and this is the worst possible time to do so. If we feel fear, hurt, sadness, or anger (or any other stressful emotion); then our natural inclination is to fight or run away. This is a hard-wired instinct coming from the brain’s belief that our life is in danger. When we feel negative emotions we are not usually in real danger, and this reaction typically has nothing to do with the situations we are involved in. But at the time, in the moment, it seems bigger than life, and oh so real. Understanding this principle, and applying it to our lives could change the outcome of every challenging situation we encounter. It is especially helpful in understanding relationships.
The Power of the Stress Response
A pack of vicious, snarling dogs appears in front of you, you are flooded with fear, and then this fear turns into focused action. You race back to your truck, jump inside, slam the door, and breathe a big sigh of relief. When a threat like this occurs, the brain generates a negative emotion, such as fear, to help us survive by fighting against or running away from the threat. Researchers have long known that negative emotions prompt us to perform specific actions, like running to safety when confronted by our ferocious furry friends. In a predicament like this one, nothing else matters. We are focused on the threat, the fear it generates, and how we can escape to safety. Under such circumstances, this response could save our lives.
Stress informs the brain that we are in danger, as if we are experiencing a real threat like the one depicted above. When receiving this message, it rallies all available resources and prepares its troops for battle. After this red alert status has been switched on, the brain shifts us into Survival Mode (stress response), where it limits thought, perceived possibilities, and courses of action to those associated with preserving life in the face of mortal danger. It also turns off the body’s normal repair and maintenance systems to free up all available resources for what it believes will be a struggle for survival. This is why chronic stress often leads to progressively more severe forms of physical, mental, and emotional illness. It can also damage brain structure and connectivity. Stress, whether manifesting as anger, fear, or shock; or states like depression and anxiety; originated as an instinctual aid to help focus us on survival when confronted by an imminent threat. In the absence of real danger, we were not intended to experience such negative thoughts or emotions. They were not supposed to take away our happiness.
Now imagine that every time we have a strong negative emotional reaction to something, and feel the urge to fight or run away, we perceive this survival instinct as being generated by others around us at the time, like an intimate partner, child, or friend; and respond with things like anger, aggression, distancing, avoidance, or wanting to run away; sometimes even wanting to end or completely change relationships; based on this temporary, stress-induced emotional state. If we are unable to recognize what is happening, then we believe these stress-induced thoughts and feelings are justified, because, in the moment, they are all our brains allow us to perceive (believing there is a threat, and fighting against or running away from it).
One simple example might be a mom who is in a new relationship that she has not told her kids about yet, is regularly exchanging intimate texts with her friend, and then one day her kids are playing on her phone when one of these texts comes in. She might freak out, grab the phone, delete the text, and then become so angry with him because of the fear she felt about being discovered that she wants to end, or significantly alter the entire relationship. And she might have even told him that she wanted him to feel free to text her any time. It is not the actual situation she is reacting to, it is the stress-induced fight or flight response which has nothing to do with her friend or the texting. It has everything to do with the brain being triggered into Survival Mode, and then her thoughts, feelings, perceived possibilities, and courses of action being temporarily limited to and determined by this state. In the absence of pre-existing or chronic conditions, like depression or anxiety; if she waits until she returns to a relaxed state, and regains a broader perspective before addresing the matter, then the likelihood is that she will realize that the situation was not a threat, and calmly talk with her friend about making practical adjustments. If she addresses it while in Survival Mode, then she will likely either be angry, blaming, or even wanting to end or step back in the relationship. If she is prone to depression or anxiety, then this stress trigger may be incorporated into her pre-existing negative emotions, and may complicate her recovery from the reaction.
And her friend may also freak out, in response to her emotional reactions and suggestions, from the fears and insecurities he may feel, which could also cause him to shift into Survival Mode. When both parties trigger in such a situation, it may escalate, grow like a snowball, and result in a much bigger-seeming problem before dissipating. But whatever happens, and however overwhelming it may seem; when we regain our calmness and clarity we can always go back, face the truth, take responsibility, and turn things around. This is especially true when real love is involved, and such love is definitely worth facing our fears and stripping our egos over. Such a situation may even create an opportunity for healing and growth. But we do not want to make it a way of life. We want to understand and overcome it through such experiences.
This is the power of the stress response, and this is why it is so important to understand it. If we are unable to see it while it is unfolding, then we can at least recognize it after the fact and seek to quickly undo the damage we may have done. There is always hope, especially when there is love.
Another element for many of us, when the stress response is triggered; that can further complicate our recovery from its influence; is the feeling of loss of control that it may generate. For example, when our mom triggers in response to the intimate texting being potentially discovered, and when this stress response makes her want to withdraw from or step back in the relationship; she may also be feeling out of control in the moment. If so, then one way to temporarily regain the illusion of control before regaining her balanced perspective would be to end or reduce contact with what, in the moment, she believes is the cause of her problem. When a situation, or person, leaves us feeling out of control, then one way we may try to regain it is to eliminate what we perceive to be its cause. This control variable, when accompanying the stress response; is especially relevant when the flight (of fight or flight) process has been activated. This is where people feel like either literally or figuratively withdrawing, retrating, or running away in some fashion. If we feel like running away, and also feel out of control; then eliminating what we perceive to be the cause of both would seem, in the moment, to be the resolution for both. But it addresses neither, because it is the cause of neither. And consider how much damage could be done in the process.
This loss of control could apply equally to her male friend, if he believes she really wants to do this, and begins reacting with a stress response to his fear or hurt. If he responded by wanting to withdraw or run away also; then he, too, might want to do something more extreme in an attempt to regain control (because of feeling so out of control in the moment). For instance, if she was distant or angry seeming, implying he had done something wrong to her; when he was only doing what she had requested; and if she said she wanted to back the relationship off to a friendship for now; then he might first trigger into a distancing mode (flight response), and then try to regain control by saying that he wanted to end the relationship all together, even though this is the last thing he really wants to do. So the flight portion of the stress response is telling him to run away for safety, and the feeling of loss of control is prompting him to take it one step further in order to give him the illusion of control in the moment.
And, for both of them, all they want is to find a way to be close within the practical constraints of their day-to-day lives. This is why it is so important to understand and responsibly manage such reactions. This illustrates how differently things can occur than we really want them to based on emotional reactions which represent something other than what is actually occurring. The more powerful the bond, and the greater the vulnerability we choose to offer someone; the more difficult it will be to prevent such reactions from occasionally occurring. But if we understand the dynamics of this process, even if we trigger and temporarily lose sight of our broader perspective, we will quickly recognize what has happened, and then be better able to address it before it snowballs into new and bigger problems. Even though a relationship may seem to have ended, we can almost always turn it around, if love is the basis for its existence, and especially if a true spiritual bond is present. Emotions can be unstable, but love and soul connections are enduring. We must move past the ego and emotions to the truth of love and higher consciousness.
Re-establishing Spiritual Awareness
If we are blessed to perceive higher consciousness, and if we are occasionally pulled out of it by important material world influences (like love relationships), then returning to its luminous radiance may be another step in our recovery from the stress response. If, for the purposes of this post, we refer to the stress response as Survival Mode, the relaxation response as Safe Mode, and a state of higher consciousness as Spiritual Mode; then when recovering from Survival Mode, we must first return to Safe Mode, where we can access the full range of thoughts, feelings, possibilities, and courses of action available to the material world mind; and then on to the Spiritual Mode, where we can access the infinite range of co-created possibilities contained within higher consciousness. From a state of higher consciousness, everything will be clear and bright again; and the purpose, value, and priority of the spiritual will be seen. From this vantage point, it will be unequivocally clear that anything deriving from a soul connection, or the supernatural love flowing out of it, is a threat to nothing; and could only lead to healing, growth, and loving thoughts and outcomes. The universe would allow nothing less from its conscious infinite light. Only our human mind could make it seem otherwise.
Have you ever experienced such a negative emotional reaction? What were its effects? What methods have you used to overcome such things?
Photo Credit: Raul Lieberwirth