How do our stress responses show up in our relationships?
Stress responses (also called trauma responses) are the immediate reactions that occur when we are triggered. Stress responses are the body’s way of keeping us safe from actual (or perceived) dangers and threats.
The threatening stimuli trigger the amygdala (responsible for fear), which notifies the hypothalamus (responsible for coordinating brain messaging), alerting our automatic nervous system, and causing a reaction. Stress responses are automatic, meaning they can be difficult to control.
There are four stress responses:
Stress responses can be especially evident and problematic with individuals experiencing:
- Acute stress
- Childhood trauma
- Heightened stress
The flight response shows up as an attempt to protect yourself when feeling scared or threatened by “fleeing” or removing yourself from a stressful situation.
For example, someone walking down the street and seeing an unknown dog whose flight response was triggered may choose to walk down a different street to protect themselves.
Other forms of flight responses include:
- Walking out of rooms and spaces
- Avoiding conflict or tough conversations
- Overworking or focusing on work as a distraction
The freeze response is categorized as individuals who may try to protect themselves when feeling scared or threatened by shutting down or self-preserving.
For example, someone who is receiving critical feedback at work, and whose freeze response was triggered, may shutdown as a way to protect themselves.
Other forms of freeze responses include:
- Feeling immobilized
- Checking out of a conversation
- Falling asleep
The fawn response is categorized as individuals who may try to protect themselves when feeling scared or threatened by trying to “keep the peace.”
For example, someone who is conflict avoidant, and whose fawn response was triggered, may try to appease others to protect themselves.
Other forms of fawn responses include:
- Over explaining ourselves
- Over extending ourselves
- Prioritizing the needs of others
- Being a “giver”
Stress responses can present themselves in relationships in various ways:
- Arguing or yelling
- Scolding or reprimanding
- Getting overly defensive
- Becoming overly critical of partner(s)
- Shutting down or stonewalling
- Checking out of a conversation or ending one
- Experiencing detachment
- Ending relationships early
- Walking out in the middle of conflict
- Blocking people to avoid conflict
- Staying busy to distract from conflict
- Engaging in people pleasing behaviors
- Over apologizing or agreeing just to end conflict
- Conceding or taking on too much (or all blame)
Strategies to Manage Stress Responses
Here are some tips to practice when feeling triggered:
- Identify the behavior(s) as a stress response
- Reassure yourself that no threat is present
- Practice relaxation and self-soothing techniques to calm your body, such as mindful breathing, grounding exercises and distress tolerance.
Continuous meditation, physical activity, boundaries, and other ways to reduce and relieve stress are effective ways to manage stress responses.
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