Fight, Flight, Feel?

There’s really no argument that uncomfortable feelings are just that; uncomfortable.  So uncomfortable in fact, that instinctively, we find ourselves trying to do anything and everything to avoid them.

Back in the day, our ancestors facing life-threatening situations were forced to make a split-second decision to either fight or flee; thus coining the term Fight or Flight. In the modern world, while perhaps less often in situations of life or death, there’s certainly no shortage of events that leave us feeling stressed, anxious, and uncomfortable.

In hindsight, a partner ending a relationship or being let go from a job may not feel like events that need us to implement ancient survival tactics. In the moment, however, these high intensity events are perceived by our bodies as threats much like those experienced by our predecessors, and kick that fight or flight stress response into high gear.

When problems arise, be they literal or perceived, we often find ourselves creeping into a heightened state of worry. Rather quickly, this worry can become a seemingly overwhelming sense of panic that undoubtedly triggers that Fight or Flight response.

In recent counseling sessions, Fight or Flight has come up a number of times as a result of various big (or so they seemed at the time) life events. “An overwhelming need to get out, go somewhere else and start again” is the usual description I gave when trying to explain the feeling. When that ‘panicky, increased heart rate, hyper-focused’ feeling starts to increase, my natural response seems to almost always gear towards ‘flight’ – a desire avoid those feelings at all costs.

The last time the topic resurfaced, my counselor asked me whether I ever consciously try to put aside the flighty feelings for just a moment, and try to identify the actual emotions experienced when switching to that responsive state.

Most in this situation immediately feel their walls start to go up slightly as deliberately focusing on uncomfortable things goes against our natural reaction.

Something horrible? No thank-you. Oh sorry… you want me to go towards the something horrible?

What I was being asked to do was to sit with my feelings. Essentially, after concluding that a situation doesn’t actually REQUIRE us to react by fighting or fleeing the scene immediately, what if we just sat with that uncomfortable feeling instead?

Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge whatever feelings come up, accept them, and allow them to flow through us without reacting in a way that distracts us from or dulls those feelings? How might that look?

Psychologists describe Sitting with our Emotions as really allowing ourselves to zero in on what exactly it is we are feeling.

First, we can identify the emotions we’re feeling.

Are you feeling resentful, disappointed, abandoned… get as specific as possible. Write them down if you feel like it.

Next, validate those feelings – let them take up space.

For me that usually means watching a sad movie and just letting the tears out – Maybe for you that’s going somewhere quiet and yelling as loud as you can or blasting your music in the car. Allow yourself to feel what it is you’re experiencing rather than putting on a brave face and brushing the thought away.

Then, try to identify how those emotions present themselves.

 My counselor asked me how my ‘flighty’ thoughts actually come out when I start to feel them taking over my thought process – that way they’re easier to identify the next time they come around.

“I start to hyper focus on one thought and I start to go down a rabbit hole of worry. I get the classic anxious feelings – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, inability to sit still. I then start what I like to call ‘my escape route’ – I start to plan how I can get as far as possible from my perceived threat. The threat could be friendships, relationships, careers etc… etc… Knowing I’ve got a plan that allows me to distance myself tends to relax me slightly.”

Lastly, sit in your discomfort.

For those of us who like to try and fix everything, this is the hardest part and therefore I think for many, the most important. Allowing ourselves to breathe consciously, actually honing on what it is we’re truly concerned about until gradually the thought starts to fade little by little.

While these may sound simple on paper, they can be fundamental in how we react to situations.

A multitude of external factors continually influence the way in which we express ourselves, and how we react to our emotions is simply a learned reaction based on our environment. Perhaps we learned as a child to hide our tears when we got upset, or maybe later in life we learned that pretending not to be concerned when we got broken up with was easier than showing we were actually devastated.  

Regardless of when those learned behaviors first came into play, it’s important to recognize that by continuing to educate ourselves on alternative ways of reacting, such as learning to sit with our emotions, just like how anything we’ve gradually learned over time can be changed; we can always adapt.

We as humans are creatures of habit and learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings is simply a matter of practice makes it a little bit easier every time.

Speaking to a professional has been monumental is my own journey of self discovery – we often have so many of the tools we need to change a mindset, but just need to be guided in that direction. There might be a pathway that’s much nicer that the one we’re currently on, we just need someone to show us where the trailhead is.

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