Recently in my group, I spoke about how my survival response takes over when Dalia, my partner, and I fight. From a brain perspective, our amygdala, an almond-shaped piece in the middle of our brain, is there to keep us safe. It is what others call our reptilian brain — the oldest part of our brain and survival system.
All animals are hardwired to survive. Reptiles do not have all the options we have as mammals. Their default is to freeze and play dead. We still have that as an option when we cannot run, fight, or connect to others.
On occasion, when Dalia and I fight, my reptilian freeze response takes over. I do not fully freeze (which I have done in other situations). I do what many men do – I disconnect or disassociate from my somatic and emotional experience. My neo-cortex — my mind — goes offline. Sure, I can talk, but my ability to articulate my thoughts is limited.
I use the ROC Formula to first reconnect to myself and then to Dalia. I attempt to slow down. As you know, sometimes it is hard to slow down when your body is racing in its survival response. The part of my conscious mind that is still working reminds me to breathe, focus on my body, and allow myself to accept my somatic and emotional experiences.
This usually works if our “discussion” is not escalated. If it is, it takes more for me to down-regulate our interaction. Both of us and our relationship are in survival responses, with the other feeling like the enemy. When that happens, I need to risk more and step into my vulnerability. Doing that can be a challenge when my physiology is disconnecting me from my experience.
Last night when my group asked me deepening questions, it led me to something that should have been obvious but was not. In doing the opposite of what my survival response would do – asking for help — I am vulnerable. In asking for help, I am no longer a threat to Dalia. I am also going beyond my survival response to what I want and need.
With the help of the other parts of my brain, my connection nervous system (ventral vagal nerve), I lean into the vulnerability of asking for help. When my body became conditioned to surviving and believing there was no help available, I trained myself to survive on my own. By stepping into feeling, slowing down, and speaking my unspeakable by asking for help, my amygdala will no longer be driving the bus.
What is one default survival behavior you do when you feel trapped? What do your body, mind, and emotions do or want to do?
Pick a (preferably) recent incident where your amygdala took over. Unpack what you did not want to feel. Do your best to feel the discomfort as you speak.
In our groups, men listen and honor the man’s experience. We do not solve the issue, nor do we give him suggestions. We ask questions that have him feel what he could not feel when the incident occurred. In the emotional safety of the group, we get to slow down, feel, and share ways to connect in the middle of a stressful situation.
If the only thing that occurs is that the man feels a little more in the witness of other men, that can be a significant step. Surviving is generally a solitary experience; bringing your group into your process starts to down-regulate the need to survive. It will create or reinforce new neuro pathways.
When and how does your survival response kick in? When it does, what is taken out? In other words, when your amygdala kicks in, what stops happening?