Key points

  • Our nervous systems play a key role in our interactions with others. This typically happens outside of our awareness.
  • Our habitual reactions of "fighting, fleeing, or freezing" were designed to protect us, yet they can cause relationship ruptures.
  • Understanding our nervous system empowers us to activate more newly evolved responses that can lead to better communication and repair.

The other day, my computer was hacked. The morning had started off badly, with my garage door jamming, leaving me no way to get my car out. In an attempt to call the company we use to fix our garage doors, I clicked on their Web site (which I later discovered had been abandoned for years) and suddenly my computer went black. A moment later, a flashing message appeared telling me my computer was compromised and locked, and a loud, booming, repetitive audio message sounded an alarm about how I needed to call the Apple support number below immediately. It was a great scam, meant to evoke panic and reactivity. It was successful in the panic part. Thankfully I knew better than to react and reached out to the “real” Apple support team who showed me that, in fact, my computer was totally fine, and I just needed to close the browser. It was, in essence, a false alarm.

How Our Nervous System Tries to Protect Us From Perceived Threats

Not only was the Web site scheme a false alarm (trying to scare me into thinking my computer was locked, so someone could then scam me), but my own nervous system threw me into a false alarm as well. The panic I felt was a vestige of the more primitive parts of my brain and nervous system, wired over millions of years of evolution, trying to protect me. As my brain perceived a threat, I went into fight-or-flight mode, with my sympathetic nervous system essentially revving up to either fight a predator or run the heck away. The cascade of stress chemicals flooding into my body was trying to protect me, but in this state of panic I was much more reactive, and it was hard to think clearly. Fortunately, the more newly evolved parts of my brain (thank you, prefrontal cortex) came to the rescue and helped to protect me in more beneficial ways, by allowing me to step back and see a bigger picture.

Our nervous system is wired in such a way that we have this kind of built-in alarm that can often give us “false alarm” signals. Through a process of neuroception that happens below the surface of awareness, an area of our brain is constantly scanning our environment for cues of threat and danger or cues of safety. When we perceive a threat, the alarm system sounds. The result of that is a sympathetic nervous system response that prepares us to fight the enemy or run away to protect ourselves.

How Our Nervous System Affects Our Interactions

But what if the “enemy” is our partner, child, boss, or co-worker? What if the “threats” that we perceive are unfinished chores, not feeling heard, high work demands, or misunderstandings? Our more primitive nervous system, not knowing the difference between a life-threatening emergency or a more modern-day relationship challenge, can throw us into a fight-or-flight response nonetheless in the service of trying to protect us. If we are trying to escape from a tiger, the accompanying tunnel vision that ensues may be essential, but in our day-to-day relationships, that same tunnel vision may prevent us from seeing a bigger picture. Additionally, when we react, yell, scream, argue, or fight, how well does that tend to work? In my experience, not well.

There is also another self-protective response that we have built into the most primitive part of our autonomic nervous system, mediated by the dorsal vagal branch of the vagus nerve. In the face of perceived threats, when we feel there is nothing we can do, our nervous system has a “freeze” response—immobilization, collapse, shut down. Playing dead helped our most primitive ancestors survive, but our modern version of this response (shutting down, withdrawing, disconnecting, not talking, closing others out) doesn’t usually work so well in the long term in the face of relationship ruptures.

What Can We Do About This?

Understanding how our nervous system operates can be immensely empowering. Consider this example:

My husband does something that upsets me, and I get triggered. My nervous system revs up and I approach my husband in a heightened state and a loud, anxious tone. His nervous system perceives “danger” in my tone and body language, and his go-to nervous system response is to shut down and withdraw. His response becomes another perceived threat for me (not having resolution and fear of disconnection), and I, in turn, become more upset, which pushes him further away.

Alternatively, if I am able to recognize and name that this is my alarm sounding, there is an opportunity to pause and assess the situation. I can thank this part of my nervous system for trying to protect me but remind myself there is no life-threatening emergency here. In that pause, there is the possibility to step out of my habitual reactivity. I can tell myself that what will actually help me feel safer in this moment is to stay calm and in connection—to activate my newest parts of my brain and nervous system (the prefrontal cortex and the ventral vagal branch). If I gather my thoughts, lower and soften my tone, and wait until my body feels more relaxed before I approach and speak, my husband’s nervous system will be much more likely to receive whatever I have to say. In this more regulated state, there is far more possibility for resolution and repair.

Steps to Try When You Are Getting Triggered

  1. Name what is happening in your nervous system (e.g., I am going into fight-or-flight; I am going into shut-down).
  2. Ask—is this a life-threatening emergency? If not, pause. Thank your nervous system for trying to protect you and remind yourself that you have more newly evolved parts of your brain and nervous system to call upon to help you see what is needed.
  3. Take a moment to help your nervous system feel safe (e.g., through regulated or mindful breathing).
  4. Notice your tendency to want to react. Step back and see things from the widest perspective possible.
  5. Remind yourself that finding a felt sense of safety and calm in your body will make it more likely for you to remain in connection and find better resolutions than the automatic reactivity your nervous system wants to pull you into.

Try This When Someone Else Is Getting Triggered

  1. Remind yourself that their nervous system is trying to protect them, and they are reacting to some kind of perceived “threat.”
  2. Ask yourself what they might be experiencing that is causing this “threat” (e.g., a teenager desperately wanting newfound independence and autonomy; a spouse wanting to feel heard).
  3. From this perspective, see how it might be most helpful to approach the situation in a way that helps their nervous system pick up cues of safety from yours. For example, talk in a calm, soft tone, and start by inviting them to speak, with you taking a listening role: “I notice you’re upset. I wonder if you want to talk about it.” Step into their shoes before speaking.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here