I hid out in a McDonald’s bathroom stall the other evening. We were out as a family, celebrating the end of our dreaded skating lessons, and my youngest had complained about our celebration destination from the moment I brought it up.
“It’s not special enough.”
When she realized her cajoling wasn’t going to change my mind on the destination, she moved on to the next thing, and complained about getting to pick only one item (can’t blame her, the sweet + salty duo is hard to resist). When she kept going and pushing for more, seemingly determined to not enjoy the experience, I felt myself start to rise and knew that it was my time to get out of there. My body was tensing, my fists clenching, and exasperation was escalating.
I walked away before I knew where I was going. The choices were few, either into the playplace (the pit of chaos, not my first choice), outside (cold, nope) or lastly – the bathroom (the last, and clearly best option). I stood just inside the door for a few moments, nestled up to the hand dryer, quickly realizing I would look strange if someone walked in – and then proceeded to lock myself in a stall instead. 5 minutes or so later, feeling less likely to pounce on my child, I returned to my slightly confused family in line.
I wasn’t quite back to baseline self when I headed back out, and so I let my more calm and rational husband finish ordering with the kids. I sat down and waited for them and by the time they came over were were able to have a good end to the evening. My abrupt departure seemed to knock my girl off her grouchy axis, and she found a way to be happy with her Oreo McFlurry. The space allowed me to calm down and feel more like a human and less like Mama Hulk.
I’m not always fortunate enough to catch the rise before it escalates. But this time it worked. In thinking about it after, I realized that I was interpreting her dissatisfaction and the complaining as a threat – and my body was moving into fight/flight/freeze in response to her displeasure.
Seems silly, doesn’t it, that my kid’s unhappiness would be perceived as a threat? Silly or not, everything was escalating in me and I couldn’t help but notice the process in action. This isn’t our first rodeo, and I know that if I had stayed in that moment with her that my tensed up body and frustrated voice would have been a threat to my girl, and then the two of us would have gotten locked into a good old escalation trap – both of us defending against each other.
This short video briefly describes the fight/flight/freeze process for those who are unfamiliar.
So basically, my brain was seeing my child as a enemy that I needed to subdue or escape. And in fleeing I was able to calm down and reassess the threat level – rather than angrily escalating the evening.
Does this ring a bell for you?
Maybe your partner leaving the laundry on the bedroom floor sends a message that he doesn’t care about you, you’re not important to him, therefore you are alone in this relationship (and alone = danger) and you fly into an angry rage. Or perhaps your kid not putting their shoes on when you have to leave for an appointment leaves you losing. your. mind. You’re going to be late. That sense of urgency is enough to activate a fight/flight/freeze response – and before you know it, you’re yelling your kid out the door.
I think lots of us probably have these false alarms, and some of us might have them pretty often. They can happen with kids, spouses, bosses, and friends. Or even in response to our own actions (like losing things, ever misplaced something and then felt all panicky? Yeah. Me too.) Let me say this, false alarm or not – the body response is pretty real! When working with people in both individual and marriage counselling, the fight/flight/freeze response is something we talk about fairly regularly – as are strategies to help your body calm, and return to a base level of safety. Trying to have deep, insightful conversations when we’re triggered is pretty near next to impossible, so part of therapy is learning how to come down from this escalated space so that one can reengage without employing a defensive response.
I’m grateful this time I noticed the response coming on, and was able to avoid an outburst. But trust me, it wasn’t always that way.
Learning to recognize triggers and body responses is hard work.
Noticing triggering, and then finding ways to calm down and reset can be really inconvenient. But new patterns can form, and new strategies can be employed so that we can help our brains reinterpret danger, and stop responding to cues that aren’t actually super dangerous as though our life were on the line.
McDonald’s bathrooms are gross. Really gross. But that evening I was really glad it was there, because it was the safest space for me to be.