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Understanding fight flight freeze and how to better regulate to communicate.

What is the Fight Flight Freeze response? And how does it apply to relationships? When we anticipate danger our body is wired to protect us, our brain sends a message to our body that essentially gets our body prepared for a physical onslaught. This response is often referred to as our fight flight freeze response. This mechanism is really important when we are under physical threat. For example if we encountered a lion in the wilderness, we need this physiological response to help us survive. So in the instance of encountering a lion we might go into:

When we go into fight flight freeze in a relationship context the danger is emotional, we do not need to maintain this state of heightened physiological arousal. In fact it is unhealthy for us to remain in this heightened state for long periods, and it does not help our couple communication. This is when people tend to say hurtful things in their relationship.

So what does this look like in relationship conflict?

How do we know if we are in fight flight freeze mode?
Becoming aware of our own signs of fight flight freeze is the first step in learning how to self-regulate and de-escalate conflict. When we are in fight flight freeze, it triggers a state of physiological arousal in our bodies- our heart rate goes up, blood is pumping to our vital organs, our breathing changes, our muscles might tense, we might feel dizzy or light headed, or we may notice we clench our fists. Everyone will experience this state of physiological arousal a little differently so it’s good to know your own signs. Once you notice fight flight freeze always pause the conversation straight away.

How do we manage fight flight freeze in our relationship?
In a relationship context it’s important to take a break in communication and do a self- soothing exercise to help bring your body back out of the state of physiological arousal. A self-soothing exercise might be something like a breathing exercise, going for a walk or doing something to distract yourself. The reason it’s so important we don’t try to communicate in fight / flight / freeze mode is this state of physiological arousal also affects the front part of our brain (prefrontal cortex). It impacts our ability to think rationally, to process what our partner is saying, as well as our sense of humour – all things that are important in healthy, effective relationship communication.

How do we take a break to regulate?
I often hear couples say we’ve tried taking a break before and it didn’t work. So it’s important to understand there are a few key elements to an effective break.

7 Steps of an Effective Break:

1. Take a break immediately:
A break recognises that what we are talking about is important, but the way we are communicating is getting in the way of us being able to understand each other’s perspectives. Without a break frustration may build, we become more flooded and we might say hurtful things.

2. Call it a break:
(or a nickname) It is important to understand the reason we are taking a break is not to avoid the topic of conversation, we are taking a break so we can regulate to better communicate. You may want to call it a break or come up with some code name that has a particular meaning to you.

3. Tell your partner where you are going, and when you will be back:
When our partner knows that we are coming back it reinforces feelings of safety and commitment to our relationship.

4. At least 20 mins:
We know from research that it takes at least 20 mins to come out of the state of physiological arousal.

5. Don’t think about the argument:
When we do this we are mentally still in the argument, maintaining our state of physiological arousal.

6. Come Back:
Taking a break is not an opportunity to avoid a discussion. We take a break so we can regulate, come back and communicate effectively.

7. Accept a requested break:
Although our partner may appear calm on the surface, we don’t always know what is happening underneath. Breaks stop situations from escalating. We want to enhance feelings of safety in our relationship so it is essential that we learn how to stop communication when either of us is in fight flight freeze.

“Couples often make the mistake of trying to communicate through conflict when one or both partners are in fight, flight, freeze. It is impossible to communicate effectively in this state of physiological arousal, we are simply unable to communicate and process information effectively. Taking a break to regulate is one of the most important strategies couples can use to de-escalate conflict and protect their relationship.”
Dr Katie Stirling