Anger – The Acute Stress Response (Fight, Flight & Freeze)

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Mastering aggression is intricately linked to managing stress effectively.

Recognizing situations that trigger stress can serve as a potent defense against intense emotions. However, stress can occasionally creep in unexpectedly, requiring rapid mental adjustments to mitigate its impact and prevent impulsive behaviors.

Managing anger is something that’s a concern for many clients. But have you ever thought about how anger often gets blamed when our emotions get out of hand and turn into full-blown aggression? The truth is that when we exceed our ability to manage any type of stress our body interprets a threat is present and we are more likely to lash out at others. What’s also interesting is that our bodies cannot distinguish between a physical threat and a psychological threat. Whether you’re running from a cheetah in the savannah or having a really grueling day at work, your brain goes, “Danger, danger!” Not exactly fair, right?

How Does Fight, Flight & Freeze Work?

Our bodies our wired for self-preservation. When our brain senses danger, it activates the amygdala and overrides our frontal cortex where executive functions such as reasoning, decision-making, and planning occur. The amygdala continues to direct the body to release stress hormones that cause the heart to beat faster, breathing to increase, pupils to dilate, muscles to tense, digestion to slow, etc. known as the acute stress response. This primes our bodies to engage with a threat to escape harm commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze.

Here are 3 steps I share with clients to manage stress, aka not blow up or shut down:

1. Recognize Your Personal External Triggers:

Life’s a rollercoaster, and sometimes, it’s the loops and turns that get our stress levels soaring. But what if I told you that a little awareness could be your secret weapon against stress? Being aware of stressful environments can help put you in a frame of mind to remain objective with the situation at hand. These are situations that cause significant emotions or feelings within you. Some examples may be driving in traffic, having your work criticized, waiting in lines, not being heard or appreciated, feeling helpless, being embarrassed, etc. The next time traffic has you fuming or criticism hits hard, you’re not just along for the ride – you’re the captain, charting a course through the storm. Embrace the power of awareness and watch stress lose its grip.

2. Recognize Your Internal Symptoms:

This is the last line of defense before our bodies become completely overwhelmed. Pay attention to how your body physically responds to stress or what you start thinking. Some examples are becoming trembly or fidgety, talking faster, talking louder, stopping talking, becoming nauseous or dizzy, getting a headache, clenching your fists or jaw, biting your nails, thinking about retribution or revenge, wanting to fight, etc. Stress doesn’t have to be a rollercoaster you can’t control. It’s your body’s way of saying “Hey, slow down!” Recognizing your personal symptoms is the signal to step in and apply a grounding exercise (see step 3).

3. Implement a Grounding Exercise:

As soon as you begin to recognize any internal symptoms of stress something needs to be done quickly before you exceed your ability to manage stress. Grounding exercises are tools that can quickly be used to distract yourself from the stressor(s). When we are stressed, we become worried or anxious about something (e.g., being late, having too much work and not enough time, etc.) and are focused on what may happen in the future. These exercises work by diverting your attention to your surroundings and “bringing you into the present.”

Grounding Exercise – 5 Senses

This exercise takes about 3-4 minutes and uses your body’s 5 senses to make you aware of your surroundings. It works by finding 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. I suggest taking 15-20 seconds to pull as many details as possible at each thing being observed. For example, if you’re looking at a lamp pay attention to what color it is, what’s the texture of the lamp shade, where are the switches, etc. If you are touching your pants, what does it feel like, does it make a sound if you scratch it with your nails, can you roll loose material between your fingers, etc.?

Relaxation Exercise – Thoughts on a Leaf

This is a relaxation technique used to avoid current stressors and calm you down. It takes about 5+ minutes but requires you to find a quiet place you can get comfortable in making it more difficult to do in public settings. Start by sitting down in a chair that can support your head or lying down in bed. Close your eyes and relax your muscles starting with your head and working down to your toes. In your mind, picture yourself standing in a forest setting with a stream running next to you and extending all the way to the horizon. Utilize your 5 senses to imagine feeling water from the stream spraying water as it crashes on rocks, listen to animals in the background, smell the earthy scents around you, etc. Once you feel comfortable, pay attention to the thoughts that enter your head. Recognize and acknowledge them but don’t dwell on or pay significant attention to them. Metaphorically place them on a falling leaf, watching it land on the stream, and then floating down until it’s out of sight. Continue to do this with the thoughts that come up.

Mastering aggression boils down to mastering your stress. Identifying stress-triggering scenarios can be a powerful shield against overwhelming emotions. Yet, stress sometimes sneaks in unnoticed until it’s almost too late.

Swiftly shifting your mental landscape can act as a lifeline, momentarily alleviating stress and sparing you from regrettable actions.

However, since these tactics offer short-term relief from stress, it’s crucial to later tackle the underlying issues once you’ve regained your composure.

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