Monday, January 14, 2013

Stress and Control: Fight or Flight

This is another in a sporadic series on control, which started here. Other installments are here and here.

After a series of nightmares over a few days about losing control of a car I was driving (well, I was driving TWO cars at the same time, against the flow of traffic, and lost control of the one I was not in, and it flipped back on top of the car I was driving), I decided it was time to see a therapist. Waking up at 2 am every night sweating and panting was a sign to me that things were not as they should be.

The therapist I met was kind and unassuming, and he was exceptionally helpful.

We talked in my first session about my job, my family, my reaction to stress, and so on. He pretty quickly helped me sort out some scenarios for the dream in relation to specific things that were going on in my life at the time.

As we continued to meet together over the next few weeks, he helped me understand some interesting relationships within myself. Each of us has, he said, because of our evolutionary heritage, a fight or flight reflex. That reflex is typically activated by some kind of stressor, and for some of us, the fuse is short and for others the fuse is longer. But for all of us, because we no longer live among predators who will eat us if we do not fight or flee, the fight or flight response may lead to overreaction to the stressors, unless we learn to do something about it.

My way to avoid stress up to that time was also my cause of stress. If I could control everything around me, then I felt no stress. Since I could not control everything around me, stress was inevitable. And often the results of my reaction to the stress were not pretty. I was at my worst the anti-poster child for Section 121’s counsel to exercise power and influence through long-suffering, kindness and meekness. And the less control I felt I had, the more I wanted.

One of the things we worked on was the fight or flight response. His hypothesis, which seems to have been correct in my case, was that stress triggered the fight portion of that response in me, and my fuse was very, very short.

We worked on ways to lengthen my fuse, so that I would have time to plan and execute my own reaction, rather than relying on my untrustworthy (and unnecessary) instinct. What was valuable to me in the process was learning to recognize that this tendency of mine was not completely a flaw in my moral character, but rather a product of my biology (and perhaps my earlier responses to my environment). Learning to overcome it was not just a matter of willing myself to improve, but it was taking positive and specific steps to give myself time to do what I knew in my heart I wanted to do, but didn’t seem to be able to do.

We tried a few exercises, but the one that worked best for me was the catastrophe exercise. In this exercise, I spent specific time in a room alone. I thought of something that would cause me stress, and I talked myself step by step through successively more serious consequences of successively less controlled circumstances until I got to some ultimately untenable conclusion. The point was to get my heart rate up, my breathing more rapid, to increase the physical feelings of stress in the process, and then, once I articulated the most dire end-game, to take a large cleansing breath and tell myself (aloud), “And that’s ok.” And then within seconds to start again. I was to build up the time I would do the exercise – five minutes a day in the first week, then ten the next week and fifteen the third week. By the end of the third week, I could no longer get myself worked up doing the exercise. That was, my therapist told me, the point.

The exercise sensitized me to the stress so that my instinctive response did not kick in immediately; instead I would have time to plan my own response.

Generally today I’m much better than I was most of the time. I still tend to rely on the fight or flight response when I’m particularly tired or when there are multiple stressors at work at the same time.

As cheesy as it seems, Stress Management for Dummies was really helpful, as was Overcoming Anxiety for Dummies. I’m sure there are more sophisticated books on the subject, but these helped me to identify quickly some key concepts that I could work on.

The reason I share this story is not to suggest the solution that worked for me will work for everyone (thought it might), but rather to point out what I said above: my reaction to stress was more than just a moral failing. It was something that I could not simply will away by "working harder." If the gospel teaches us nothing else, it teaches that we cannot overcome this moral condition without the blessings of the atonement. Each of us is dependent upon the Savior's grace to overcome the finite nature of our existence, and to overcome sin. Similarly, we may also require the help of trained professionals to help us in our path, as well.


  1. Wow. Scary dreams. Thanks for sharing your experience in learning to react to your stress - very interesting.

  2. That dream is a fabulous image to explain the danger of trying to control things that we can't control. Dreams like that, which tell you something about what's going on using imagery and objects completely outside the situation are a particularly fascinating type of revelation. Of course, they can be pretty alarming too, when the message is an urgent warning. I've had some scary car dreams myself that were revelatory warnings.

  3. Michaela, I have dreams from time to time when I'm in a car out of control (usually the brakes don't work). A clear signal (now) that I need to sort out some control issues elsewhere in my life.