The Fight Response (Pt 1 Stress Response Series)
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
Fight may be the more obvious of the responses to stress that we notice. It tends to grab our attention most easily. Scorn, vindictive, frustrated, pissed, irritated, even a sense of collection on top of a boiling volcano that lies beneath. A desire to punch someone in their throat, "If only I can get my hands on them!" All of this and more can show us the many directions our fight response can take.
All of us have the capacity to become angry because we all have the fight response in us. And we each have our own special way of showing anger. If you ever play a game of cards against me and you happen to find yourself in a winning position, you might pick up a change in my affect. My silence sets in and my responses become more limited. I'm in a thinking mode, quickly putting my mind on all the logical aspects of the game. I'm set on getting back in a winning position. I don't like the threat of losing, so I'm going to put all my energy into a cold-calculating mode so I don't let you take that win away from me. Winning brings the feelings I want and any threat to that feeling puts me in a defensive position, one that I am going to quickly maneuver out of, as long as I can keep my focus on the game.
As silly as this thought process may be, when we sense a threat to something we feel is a necessity, our fight response goes into action. Is winning a necessity? Absolutely not, but when in that stress response state, it's more challenging to convince it otherwise. Once our egos determine what is thought to be a necessity, our fight response soon becomes attached, because it's ready to protect what it ultimately thinks it needs.
Fight mode gives us the capacity to protect what is important to us, no matter what that important thing is. Winning, our territory, our pride, our family, and obviously our lives. Fight responses are not just limited to survival, though in essence that is where it seems to originate from. But as our ancestors settled land and were able to increase the comfort of their lives, our fight response moved from not just protecting our lives but essentially what we deem to be important.
Effective Use of Anger
Generally the fight response can be rather healthy when regulated to more effective means. It can come across as healthy competitiveness, assertiveness, motivation, protecting ourselves, and asserting our rights. One of my favorite examples of healthy anger is Rosa Park's staunch and set stance as she remained seated in her position on a bus. At that time, separation of races required black individuals to stand and make room when white individuals stepped onto a bus. Even if there were plenty of seats to sit on, black individuals were not allowed to even sit when a white individual was seated. Obviously one could only tolerate this unfair requirement for so long. Rosa Parks, and many others, had enough.
Dedicated, Parks remained seated, refusing to get up. She was there first on the bus and had a right to remain while there were plenty of other seats for the man to sit on. While she remained calm and collected, I am sure there was a sense of anger that boiled within her. The difference between how Parks handled her anger compared to how we generally tend to handle our anger, is how she transformed her anger into the change that was needed for our nation. Putting her anger into a larger cause, Parks regulated herself at the time it mattered most, transforming the nation as eventually her actions and the actions of many others' ended segregation in the United States.
This and many other examples explain the many effective uses of anger as a source of energy. Telling someone not to treat you poorly, asserting a no to something that you don't want to do and should not do, taking accountability for something you've done rather than wallowing in shame, correcting your behaviors and making a much needed change within yourself, teaching others right from wrong, and standing up for someone else being treated unfairly. Effective use of anger matches the response needed for the situation. It is where you maintain composure, stay respectful, and know when your anger is escalated so that you can walk away until less heated and in a more rational space in your mind.
When Anger Gets Out of Hand
The problem with anger is when we lose control of it, and rather than us managing our anger, our anger instead manages us. Many factors can influence unhealthy expression of anger. 1) Having unhealthy examples of anger as a child, 2) witnessing violence frequently, 3) not being allowed to express your anger so it becomes bottled within. Anger can also be attributed when our nervous systems are over-activated. For those of us who have had a
traumatic experience(s), our nervous system becomes more wired to detect danger, which can then lead to quick responses of anger. Anger can also become unhealthy if we got our way with anger and learned to use our anger to get what we want, or if we learned that anger was better than feeling small.
Getting to Know Your Fight Response
Here are some examples:
Increase in heart rate. Breath becoming shallow.
Hands clenching. Sweating.
Jaw and spine becoming rigid. Teeth grinding. Glaring.
Vision becoming narrow. Tunnel-visioned.
You feel disconnected from your body, as though you are only in your head.
Anger, frustration, irritation, fuming, livid.
Jealousy and envy.
Protective. Defensive. Hostile.
Hostile, defensive, and threatening
Fighting. Attacking. Violent.
Bullying. Over-use of demeaning humor.
Judgemental. Critical. Vindictive. Petty.
Manipulative. Over-intellectual, over-rational, numb.
Our Anger Needs Us
Some of us don't like our anger. When you have anger responses that you want to change, you ultimately have two choices. You can 1) get frustrated with your anger and add anger to anger, which then adds fire to fire. 2) Or you can recognize that your anger needs a bit of your help and start taking the steps needed to calm your nervous system and put your prefrontal cortex in control.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that can mindfully control our responses that get triggered from our limbic system. The limbic system is essentially the part of our nervous system that drives our automatic responses when there is a stress reaction, therefore creating a stress response. Often when there is trauma, the prefrontal cortex and limbic system seem to get wedged apart. This doesn't, however, have to be the condition anyone is stuck with as luckily our brain and nervous system can heal just as our bodies can heal, otherwise known as neuroplasticity. How does one start the process then of taking back their nervous system, especially when it comes to anger?
1) Notice what your anger is wanting to do, and stop yourself. 2) Take a step back. 3) Walk away until you are away from the source that is triggering your anger. 4) If you don't get that choice, notice the zone you are in and where it is wanting to go. Decide from there if that is what you want and if it isn't, shift into the kind of response you are wanting to have. Don't want to get fired? What can help you feel good to stand up for yourself, remain confident, and still stay respectful so you don't say anything you regret later? 5) Don't forget to breath. Your breath will allow you to release the anger that got built up, that way it doesn't have to stay with you for the rest of the day. I know, for some these all seem like great ideas, and for others, it may seem like these responses are out of reach, especially if your nervous system is more highly reactive. We are all different in how angry we get and how we channel that anger. So if you haven't gotten to the point, where you feel you can shift yourself once already angry, keep reading.
If your anger is quick and feels like it comes out of nowhere, this is going to require a more long-term and proactive approach and it's going to start with managing you're overall stress.
Start by incorporating more time to relax, doing activities that can get your mind off things, having events that you look forward to.
Get a good night's rest.
Spend time with people who make you feel happy or grounded.
Go out in nature.
Engage in art.
Watch a tv show that isn't overly-stimulating.
Listen to music and be mindful of the nature of the music.
The next step is to start imagining how you want to respond with your anger instead. If you didn't have good examples in your family, it might be good to think of a teacher if they managed their anger well, or a character in a tv show and how they responded when upset. I always think of Danny Taylor from Full House or Xena when I think of how I want to manage my anger. You can also think of a time where you actually handled your anger quite well opposed to how you didn't handle it well. As your brain thinks of the examples you want to live by, you can start patterning yourself off of these more and more easily.
Eventually you will want to get to the real sources of your anger. This require you to look back into your childhood and see where this source of anger might be rooted. Is it your job that really bugs you or is it about you father who never supported you growing up? Is it the ignorant person on the bus or about the bully in high school that never left you alone? Often our unmanaged anger now is an attempt of expression that comes from a time where we were silenced and unable to express ourselves, later transferring to a situation that is much safer, or at least now where we can express ourselves where we couldn't when we were younger.
Luckily the world is full of practitioners with many different arts of healing. There are even therapists who specialize in this type of treatment that can use specific modalities including 1) CBT, 2) EMDR, 3) Somatic Processing, 4) Art Expression, and much more. It also doesn't even have to start with therapy, but it does start with wanting to change your anger and having better understanding of how it manifests.
The world is full of reasons to be angry, and those reasons will never stop. The world is also full of people who didn't have good examples of how to manage their anger, but who want to do better and can do better. Anger, when made to have a purpose, can create change that the world continues to need. Ultimately it is up to us to start with the small steps of our own anger, and from there build that better world.
Thanks for reading. Stay tuned for my next post on fear coming in two weeks.