understanding your reactivity

In the September, 2013 issue of The Mauimama we looked at power in relationships from a “Power Over” perspective. How we use coercion and force to get our way.

In the October, 2013 issue we explored ways we can reconnect with ourselves and improve our relationships by stepping out of the Triangle. These steps to self connection and empowerment : Recognize the pattern, Disengage from the triangle, Self connect and calm down and Investigate (RDSI) are directed for adults but can also easily be applied to children as well.

  1. Recognize the pattern – Notice you are triggered. What’s happening with your body, mind, and emotions? Notice your body’s warning signs as early as possible.

As we get upset, our fight, flight, or freeze instinctual responses kick in. This is survival mode—what I call the dinosaur brain takes over and the parts of our brains that can create more choices than those limited three shut off. How do we know our dinosaur brain has taken over? Look to your body. What does “triggered” look and feel like to you? Do you get very quiet or loud? Is your face bright red or do you go pale? Is your heart racing or feels like it has stopped?   Do you thoughts race or is your mind blank? Is your body rigid or collapsed? Your body reactions are based on sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system wiring. Your reactions are hardwired and as you get to know your body’s cues, you can work with them. How this may look is: I hear a “mean” statement from my partner, my heart starts racing, my breathing increases, I clench my jaw, my body goes rigid, I’m ready to start yelling—all within microseconds. In recognizing or noticing what’s happening in my boby and mind, there is a moment of choice–Dragon-like yelling or… I can pause and disrupt the pattern. I can disengage which is #2.

  1. Disengage from the triangle – Don’t act out the habitual pattern of the Triangle. Don’t react.

Sympathetic Nervous System reactivity (fight or flight) is an increase in adrenaline and looks like: redding of the skin, rapid shallow breathing, excess energy, excess heat in the body (sweating), emotional outbursts… This type of reactivity is about action—over responsiveness. The Dinosaur Brain says “I must fight to protect myself or I must flee. I will die if I don’t act and act now!!”

Parasympathetic Nervous System reactivity (freeze) is a suppression of adrenaline with an increase in cortisol and looks like: skin goes pale, flat affect or emotional inexpressiveness, loss of body heat and cold limbs, unresponsiveness, wanting to be invisible and disappear, blank mind or inability to think, dissociation… This type of reactivity is about nonaction—under responsiveness. The Dinosaur Brain says “I must freeze to protect myself. I must be very small so I’m not noticed and danger will pass on by. If I move I will die.”

  1. Self connect and calm down – Calm down the fear of the Dinosaur Brain and re-engage the part of your brain that will help you deal with what’s happening right now. Find a short-term solution. Create a short-term plan. How do you want to handle the triggering situation for right now not forever?

Calm down by breathing slowly and deeply in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your breath. If triggering or unhelpful thoughts come in, refocus on your breath and talk calmly to yourself “I’m breathing in, I’m breathing out…I can handle this…” If needed close your eyes, turn around, walk into another room to help you calm down. Sympathetic Nervous System over reactivity requires an interruption in the overproduction and discharge of adrenaline by slowing down, separating yourself or being with one person so that you can quiet your mind and body. On the other hand, Parasympathetic Nervous System under reactivity requires self-connected action. The breathing is to bring you back to yourself as you disappeared due to fear. Usually the body has collapsed, so breathe deeply, straighten your spine to a natural, upright position, take your gaze upward. Walk and move your body in a calm way. Re-engage your mind by naming things you see around you. Once your body and mind are present you know you are safe and able to address the situation.

  1. Investigate your reactions through writing, talking to a supportive person, and other ways of delving deeper so you can understand why you reacted the way you did – This info will help you to identify your needs and create a long-term plan to address them on a deeper level.

Through investigation you come to know there are more choices on how to handle triggering situations. You can determine your actions. This is empowerment. Know you have the ability to make choices that are in alignment with your values and not act out your habitual patterns. In a calm, aware state you can make self-empowered choices and a long-term plan for you and your family.

Image Credit: Catherine Velasquez

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