Help I'm being attacked - except I'm not.
August 13, 2010 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Whenever a situation gets slightly confrontational/argumentative/critical (not necessarily dangerous), I experience a flight or fight response: my hands and legs shake, my heart races and my thinking slows down (along with all the other classic fight or flight reactions). It doesn't feel like an appropriate reaction to what's actually happening (hey, someone was rude to me in a meeting. I should stop shaking). I'd like to calmly deal with these situations, and try to tell myself that the person isn't actually hurting me, but my physical reaction is so strong and immediate. Any suggestions on how to not activate this reaction or at least reduce it?
posted by vivzan to Human Relations (16 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
Listen. Focus on listening carefully to what the other person is saying. Make sure you understand what they really mean (which may not be what they're saying) and where they're coming from.

If you put all that energy into understanding what the confrontation is about from their point of view, you won't have the urge to flee, and you probably won't have so much of the urge to hit them. You may well discover that your disagreement is smaller than you first thought, or that there is some common ground.

Listening is a good tactic whether confrontations make you nervous or not, but if you are carefully listening to the other person, I think it will give you an outlet for your nervous energy.

Smiling and nodding is also good. Smiling makes you feel better, and nodding makes the other guy feel better, and you are not obliged to agree with him just because you're smiling and nodding.
posted by musofire at 12:06 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am not your shrink, but I had similar feelings that were diagnosed from unresolved PTSD. I did the therapy, the feelings went away.
posted by micawber at 12:07 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to get all clinical about it, these sort of situations are what cognitive behavioral therapy was created to treat. It teaches you to know your own responses and be able to handle them better, and it has been shown (in an evidence-based medicine kind of a way) to be very effective in treating anxiety of this kind.

Not sure if your problem is severe enough to warrant it, but it is an option.
posted by gkhan at 12:11 PM on August 13, 2010

I am not advocating drug use if what you really need is therapy, but some people use beta blockers like propanolol or metoprolol to calm those kinds of reactions. Talk to a doctor about it, etc.
posted by cabingirl at 12:22 PM on August 13, 2010

Response by poster: @cabingirl, that was an interesting read. Always wondered if musicians just battled stage fright through sheer repetition of performing.
posted by vivzan at 12:27 PM on August 13, 2010

Cutting back on caffeine helps to control this tendency in myself.
posted by Manjusri at 12:28 PM on August 13, 2010

Like micawber, I've had this before and I figured out it was because I was super-duper pissed off about something in the past and I wasn't sure I could control my anger valve when wronged in my day to day life. In my case, it wasn't an appropriate reaction to what was going on, it was the stress involved in holding in an appropriate reaction to something else in addition to any response to "what was going on." That is, the shaking and dumbness (possibly anxiety) was my reaction to my reaction, and my fear of confrontation turned out to really be a case of fear of going hog-wild. Thanks, Dad!
posted by rhizome at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: heh, rhizome, when micawber said that, I remembered that my mom said I was always like this and well, duh, my dad was violent and I was constantly afraid of what he would do.

I almost want to say that this response of mine can't be because of my childhood but... shit. It's as old as hell, I've felt this forever so... I bet it is.

Guess it's back to therapy with me. I'm interested in trying out CBT that gkhan mentioned.
posted by vivzan at 12:37 PM on August 13, 2010

Yeah, violent behavior, unpredictable responses, or similar in that situation can leave a kid with no thermometer for anger or reactions. What possible standard could they use? It's not that every confrontation inspires one to thoughts of desk-throwing, the problem is in not knowing where the lines that get crossed on the way out there are drawn, in not ever being sure what an appropriate reaction would be.
posted by rhizome at 12:46 PM on August 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Always wondered if musicians just battled stage fright through sheer repetition of performing.

Some do this, too. I used to have what you describe when in situations where I felt like I was being confronted, or sometimes when I was in a public speaking situation where I felt like I was on display. Regarding the speaking, one thing that helped me over time was simply doing it over, and over, and over again. I realized (in a way that might be helpful to your situation) is that what made me nervous and shake was the idea that I was actually at risk in some way, due to a potential decrease in reputation, my career, etc. When I realized that my deepest fears were almost always exaggerated, whatever I saw as being a threat became less immediately scary over time. For example, I used to look out at a sea of faces and think they were there to criticize me. Over time, I've learned to see them as mainly disinterested, and sometimes interested, listeners; partly because I realized that the way that I envisioned people thinking about me was almost never the way that I thought of other people when I was in the audience. This is something a professional can help with, but my guess is that there is a deeper fear that underlies this which your rational response ("huh, this is a weird way to be reacting") isn't engaging and causing the flight response. When you figure out what it is, reevaluating your situation from a rational perspective, and in a way that engages that fear directly, can be very helpful.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:52 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

While therapy sounds like a good bet, I wanted to add a coping strategy idea -- how often do you have the opportunity to step out for a second? Removing yourself from the situation briefly, under guise of a bathroom break, may give you enough PHYSICAL distance to let you get the emotional reaction under control slightly. If you can stand outside the room, or in the bathroom, and say to yourself, "This is an extreme reaction. I am not under threat. Take a deep breath," a few times, you may be able to at least dampen down the reaction. (I realize it would be super-awkward if you got up to go to the bathroom every time your boss tried to give you a performance review, but some meetings you can excuse yourself briefly and return without a problem.)

Again, depending on the severity of your reaction, it may be wise to admit it in passing. Just this week I got more upset in a meeting than the situation warranted -- the issue was heated, voices were raising, this guy kept interrupting me -- and I realized when I was talking that I sounded heated and emotional and loud, and I stopped myself midsentence, took a quick deep breath, and said in a calmer tone, "I'm sorry, I'm more upset about this than I realized, but I shouldn't be shouting." EVERYONE in the room calmed down and stopped shouting and interrupting, and I didn't suffer any loss of face. (A couple people said afterwards that they were glad I said something.) Another situation that's guaranteed to upset me far more than is warranted is dealing with customer service on the phone, and, again, if I get heated, I'll always say to the phone person, "I'm sorry, I know this isn't your fault, I'm just very frustrated." Just admitting I'm upset frequently helps me calm down.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding the idea that therapy, particularly CBT would probably help a lot.

In the meantime, I learned a simple coping strategy in therapy: focus on your breathing. Frequently when angry or scared I'm subconsciously holding my breath. Breathe in while slowly counting to ten, hold it in for ten, then breathe out slowly for ten. Repeat as necessary. Usually this mellows some of the physical reactions and allows my mind to catch up.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 3:45 PM on August 13, 2010

This might come off as New Age hokum, but actually yoga helped me a lot with this. This was totally unexpected to me, but I realized what had happened when I caught myself using a yoga style of breathing (this one) during a conference call.

So, say you've been doing yoga for an hour already and now you're doing a really hard pose, and all your muscles are hurting and shaking. Your mind is saying %$*&$*@#! And the teacher is saying "remember the breathing we practiced." It helps, oh, a little.

But over time, you develop the habit of using this breathing in yoga class to stay a bit detached from "cannot.hold.this.pose" panic, and eventually you get somewhat accustomed to letting your body freak out while staying calm in your mind.

And then, one day you'll find yourself on a conference call not even really aware that you're upset until you notice that you've slipped into the breathing.

I just tried it now, and it doesn't exactly work for me anymore, so I think that if you want the full benefits, you'd have to go take a hard yoga class for awhile.
posted by salvia at 4:28 PM on August 13, 2010

I have the same problem and I've always thought it was related to my violent childhood and some unresolved PTSD symptoms. My responses have become a bit less severe in recent years through repetition, but can still be very acute in certain situations. I find that it really helps to breathe very deeply and always have cold water to sip. If you can, go immediately to the bathroom and wash your face in very cold water, it really helps. I'll be watching this thread with interest.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:57 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Meditation has helped me tremendously because it trains my mind to get into a calm, centered place. I can then access it whenever I need to. Like salvia mentions, breathing is extremely important as a physiological signifier that tells your brain "hey, everything's OK, really."

The Light Fantastic is referencing the mammalian diving reflex.
posted by desjardins at 6:10 PM on August 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'd like to mark every answer as best answer because you all have offered something I can either try immediately or helpful suggestions like meds or therapy. Thanks. I feel like I have a few things I can try now. :)
posted by vivzan at 7:06 PM on August 13, 2010

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