Coming out of Fight
Coming out of Fight
In order to understand effective ways to down-regulate threat states, we have to understand the specific state, its function, and how it tunes our physiology. Threat states, in their various forms, arise from a neuroception (a felt, often unconscious, neural detection of threat), cued by something in the internal or external environment that makes us feel unsafe. When a threat is detected, part of our physiological orienting process is working to determine and localize the source of the threat. Sometimes this is obvious–an approaching bear–but other times it is much more difficult for us to actually detect the threat. When this is the case, our physiology is actively seeking out something to pin the threat on. If the fight response comes online, for example, and what triggered it is unclear, there is part of our physiology that is actively looking for something to pin that response to. The phrase, ‘looking to pick a fight’ alludes to this awareness that when a platform arises, and its trigger is unclear, our bodies are then going to look for something to focus the platform on.
Imagine for a moment that Rich is sitting in a bar with a group of friends, and receives a phone call from his partner, who wants him home to watch the children, and tells him what will happen if he doesn’t come home in no uncertain terms before hanging up on him. Because Rich was feeling relaxed, with his buddies, has had a long week, was unwinding for the first time, was watching the game, is aware of the impending emotional demands of the children, feels embarrassed by how direct his partner was, this has happened before, etc., etc., this elicits the fight response in him. Rich gets off the phone and then takes a sweeping glance around the bar. He may or may not be aware that he’s been triggered, and that his body has crossed a threshold from social engagement into threat response. At one level he might just feel like he is looking around—depending on his level of self-awareness, what his general baseline state is, how attuned he is to his own emotions– he may or may not be aware that he has changed state. If we hit a pause button and checked his biometrics, we would detect that his heart-rate was elevated, his breathing had become faster and more shallow, that his digestion had down-regulated, and that blood had been shunted from the core of his body into his hands. Whereas in a neural platform of safety and connection, eye contact is generally interpreted as connective, in a neural platform of fight, eye contact is generally interpreted as aggression. Rich may not realize that part of the reason he is looking around is to find someone to pin the threat response on. Sean, a tall man standing at the far end of the bar who is unknown to Rich (an ambiguous stimulus), who Rich nodded at earlier in the night when he was feeling connected to his friends now meets his eyes. At this moment, his physiology now in a fight platform, he holds the eye contact too long with Sean, feels a surge of anger arise him–thinks How come this dude is looking at me so long, and says, “What are you looking at?” If we had a slow motion replay of the moment, we would see that Sean was actually smiling slightly from his eyes, that he had greeted Rich earlier, that the game was on and Curry had just hit a ridiculous three-pointer, and that Sean was looking in Rich’s direction to see if he had seen the shot. In his fight platform, gaze narrowed by his own threat detection mechanisms, Rich doesn’t see Sean’s full face, doesn’t register that he’s smiling. He gets up and steps to Sean, who, finding his social engagement cue rebuffed, and now accurately detecting threat himself, also goes into a fight response. A fight ensues. Later, when asked by the police what happened, Rich says, “He looked at me funny.” His friends corroborate this. If you add the compounding effects of unconscious bias, and Sean is a person of color and Rich white, Sean may end up in jail or dead because Rich doesn’t know what actually drives his behavior. It is significant to note, as Dr. Porges often does when talking about behavior, that our narrative about why something happened, e.g., He looked at me funny, often has little do with what is actually driving the behavior, which is generally beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. What actually triggered Rich was his own neuroception of threat when his partner told him she was going to walk out if he didn’t get home.
Let’s help Rich to understand himself so he doesn’t end up with a broken rib, his partner doesn’t walk out, the kids still don’t have their father home to put them to bed, thirty people aren’t traumatized and re-traumatized by witnessing inter-racial violence, and Sean doesn’t end up in jail (or worse), all because Rich doesn’t understand his own physiology.
Play as Hybrid State: Social & Sympathetic
Often men like to bond by watching sports together. Dr. Porges reminds us that play (sports generally constitute play) is a hybrid platform comprised of social engagement and sympathetic circuits. The social engagement circuitry helps a team work together, be part of something larger than each individual person, while the sympathetic activation, which is mobilizing, provides the force and energy to get people racing around the court. In moments of conflict on the court- let’s say that two players are going for the ball and one of them accidentally catches the other’s elbow and falls to the ground, what happens next predictably depends on social engagement cues. If the player who threw the elbow turns towards the player who got knocked down, makes eye contact (social engagement), and reaches down to help the other player up (social engagement), the player who got knocked down will dust themselves off, get up and play will continue. In this case the social circuitry, still online, down-regulates the threat response and play continues. If, however, the player who knocked his opponent down turns away, doesn’t make eye contact, etc., the player who is on the ground is likely to bounce up swinging. Fight response. The sympathetic system is already online. When the social circuitry withdraws, this is exposed. The more violent a sport is (American football), the more intense the sympathetic aspect just beneath it, and the more likely that if the social is withdrawn there will be violence. It is significant to note that these same levels of activation are experienced vicariously in fans. There is one element of passion involved in fans of any sports team, but I would like to see a cross-sport study of severity of violence among fans in different sports having altercations that stem from conflicts between teams. I speculate that we would discover that conflicts between American football fans are more violent than conflict between baseball fans or tennis fans. This is because the very play itself is a ritualized form of fight, tempered by social engagement, rules, and structure. If that social element is withdrawn, you are left simply with ritualized fight. When this is combined with alcohol, as it often is, which among other things reduces inhibition, we see what often happens in a country where the pageantry of annihilation is often disguised as entertainment.
Let’s return to Rich.
If Rich has a higher level of self-awareness, a greater moment-to-moment ability to track his internal state, he registers that with his buddies, watching the game, in his familiar neighborhood spot, he feels safe, and relaxed. He’s had a long week, he had an argument with his partner a few days before, the kids are loud and boisterous, but in this moment, he feels warm, and settled in his body. He feels good about himself, and well-disposed to the world. Looking around the bar he sees friendly faces, he feels generous, even to the point that when he sees a black guy (Sean) standing at the far end of the bar who he doesn’t know, he has the impulse to make friends. Sitting there, he thinks that people are mostly good, that the world is a friendly place, that if everyone just had a spot where they could hang out after an exhausting week at work, things would be just fine. Curry hits a three- again- the stranger at the bar glances in his direction- and Rich communicates, just with his eyes and a quick head nod and smile- Wow, did you see that shot? Meta-communicatively, he says to Sean, I see you. And you are welcome here. This moment of social engagement is significant for Sean, who is black, who doesn’t know a lot of people in the bar, but stopped in to watch the game on his way home. He doesn’t live in the neighborhood, but it’s towards the end of the season, it’s a sports bar that has a Warriors flag in the window (Steph Curry’s team), they are all fans of the same team clearly, and there is some cultural diversity in the bar. As Sean walks in, taking note of his surroundings, he sees a group of Latino guys standing near the window, an Asian couple, and three black men sitting around a table at the rear of the bar. Many of the other customers are white. Sean eases up to the bar, orders a beer, the bartender is friendly enough, and when he feels someone looking at him over his shoulder and turns, there’s a white dude wearing a big smile who gives him a little ‘what’s up’ kind of nod and they share a moment of warmth. Sean notices the slight knot that he generally feels in his stomach in a predominantly white neighborhood loosen just a tiny bit, and his breath comes a little bit more easily. He gets absorbed in the game, the magic of a team in a flow state.
The moment Rich feels his phone vibrate a quick wave of tension passes through his gut (his newly found sense of expansion and relaxation is intruded upon), and when he digs it out of his pocket and sees that it is his partner (he thought it might be) a feeling of sudden static and fixity comes into his belly, which begins to gurgle ominously. He answers the phone in a subdued voice, “Yeah?” sensing what is coming. His partner’s Where are you, though phrased as a question, is actually more of an accusation, and immediately he feels his body tightening from inside.
Let’s pause right here, because this is the moment where the premonition of threat (preparatory orienting= digging for the phone, seeing it is his partner) concretized into the neuroception of threat (threat = accusation = where are you).
We are going to pause at a number of points along this pathway to illustrate how we might intervene with this shift into a fight state, what the various needs along the path are, and how we might get back into a state of connection.
Rich knows that his partner actually knows where he is, she isn’t asking him where he is geographically, she’s actually asking why he isn’t at home. If he has enough self-awareness, and they have enough foundation in connection, he could say (he should have said this when he answered the phone), ‘Hey love. I’m so sorry. I know I said that I’d be home by 8:30, and I know you are tired, but I’ve had a brutal week at work, and I was just feeling so relaxed talking to the guys. I think I will be able to be a better husband and father this weekend if I could just hang out for another hour. Is there any way that you would be ok putting the kids to bed?’ Whether Rich’s partner agrees or not to this, in terms of keeping him in a social engagement state, helping her back into one, this might be the best strategy. Instead, this is what happened
Elle: Where are you
Rich: (not saying anything- sounds of the bar in the background- thinking: You know where I am.)
Elle: (not saying anything- thinking: I know where he is. I can hear the game in the background. He said he’d be home by 8:30. Now he’s not even answering me? Aww, no.)
Elle: I told you to be home by 8:30. I’m not doing this with you Rich. We’re not doing this. If you aren’t home by….etc. etc.
Rich sets the phone down on the table.
Jake (Rich’s friend, who has observed all this): Rich- you alright man? I noticed that your face got really tight just now on the phone. Everything ok?
Rich: I’m fine.
Jake: Come on man, it’s me. I can hear it in your voice, bruh. Something just happened. You were chilling before. What’s up, you can tell me.
Rich: That was Elle.
Jake: Oh yeah?
Rich: (silent. Looks away.)
Jake: Hmm. I noticed that when you said it was Elle you kind of looked away right now. Is everything ok between you two?
Rich: (takes a deep breath.) Well, It’s been kinda stressful.
Jake: I feel you.
Rich: (slightly more animated.) She calls me and she’s like ‘where are you’- she damn well knows where I am.
Jake: (emphatic) Un-huh.
Rich: (loudly) I had this long-ass week. My boss continues to be a shit bird. This is the first time in seven days that I’ve had a moment to myself.
Jake: In seven days!
Rich: and she’s all (imitating Elle’s voice:) where are you, and then silent
Jake: (softly.) That’s right.
Rich: (turning to look at Jake): What the fuck, man?
Jake: Truly, What the fuck?
Rich: (takes another deep breath): I mean, I know she’s stressed out too. And the kids are…
Jake: The kids are…
Rich: You know, man, they’re KIDS. It’s like, constant. 24/7. There’s never a break. They have energy all the time, or they are asleep drooling on your arm. There’s no in-between.
Jake: I know what you mean.
Rich: I love ‘em so much, it’s just…
Rich: It’s overwhelming…sometimes I just need a minute.
Jake: (puts his hand on Rich’s shoulder.) I feel you.
Rich is breathing now, from his belly.
Rich: I just need to catch up, inside myself.
Jake: (silent, hand on Rich’s shoulder. About 30 seconds go by, after which Rich takes a deep breath, and then lifts his arms above his head, stretching.)
Rich: Thanks for listening to me, man.
Jake: You know I got your back man.
At this point, Rich is back in a social engagement state. He has, with relational support, identified what was so triggering. Along the intervention pathway, Jake has done several skillful things:
Noticed what’s happening with Rich, e.g., your face got tight
Affirmed he is there for Rich- e.g., Come on man, it’s me. You can tell me.
Articulated that he knows Rich well enough to accurately interpret something in his voice- e.g., no man, I can hear it in your voice
Tracked and reflected Rich’s own state changes (which Rich, significantly, is not aware of in himself)- e.g., looks away when he talks about Elle
Affirmed the validity of Rich’s experience- e.g., I feel you
Matched Rich’s intensity (we’ll return to this later, because of its importance)- e.g., (empathic) Un-huh.
Stayed in alliance with Rich (we’ll return to this later, because of its importance)- e.g., Truly, What the fuck?
Used reflective language- e.g., the kids are…
empathized- e.g., I know what you mean.
skillfully used touch- e.g., putting his hand on Rich’s shoulder
skillfully accompanied state needs- e.g., when Rich says he is overwhelmed, a keyword indicating a dorsal vagal state, Jake gives him time, making no more relational demand
In terms of the arc of de-escalating fight, it is important to understand the evolutionary nature of this response. Fight identifies threat, mobilizes the body for action, and helps us figure out who is with us and who is against us. Technically, we say it a mobilizing and polarizing state.
If we want to help someone who is in fight feel safe, we have to work with the intensity of their experience (generally big energy) and stay in alliance with them.
Fight energy is big, expansive, aggressive, dominating. It is loud. If we want to help someone in fight come back to feel connected and safe, we have to work with this energy, we can’t just try to make them put it away.
If you ever get cut off in traffic, have a near miss on the highway, for example, and come home and tell your partner about it, and your partner says, Oh, just relax, just take some deep breaths, visualize a lotus blossom, let it go, this actually pisses you off more. You are like, No. Listen to me. I’m angry. Affirm my anger. See it.
But if, without directing anger at you, your partner says, at the same volume you spoke, Wow. I feel you. That must have really pissed you off. You, your body then, at a physiological level, is like, They believe me. I feel that you understand by virtue of your conveying back to me the intensity of this experience. And now you can let it go. Before that, it’s very hard to let it go, because there is an energy from this experience that you are holding un-metabolized. Having it reflected back to you with appropriate intensity allows you to experience the intensity of the experience outside of you, which allows you to metabolize it. Yes, that did happen to me. It was scary. It made me angry.
The mirror neuron system in social mammals is such that sometimes what helps an experience become real for us in ourselves, is seeing it reflected back in our own words with accurate and attuned intensity and emotion.
This alludes to the importance of reflection in down-regulating threat states.
Stay in Alliance
In the example above, Jake is friends with Elle. When Rich, speaking about Elle, says, about her, What the fuck? Jake, if less polyvagally aware, might feel like he should defend her. He might say, Whoa, you’re mad at Elle, man, but it’s really not her fault. Although true, this would not be helpful, because what Rich is seeking is alliance. In order to help him come down from fight, he had to trust that Jake is on his side. This means aligning with his likes and dislikes, his preferences. We don’t want to do this in a way that is inauthentic, but we have to understand that what is driving this state is bottom-up, deep nervous system energy, and that people might say some accusatory, or otherwise wild things in this state, e.g., Miss So-and-So is a bitch. If you can’t reflect it back to them directly, say, I heard you say… or just empathize. I feel you. Don’t try to explain to them why she’s not. First of all, the neural circuitry they would need to process what you are saying isn’t online. Second, you’ll lose alliance, which is critical for getting them out of the fight state.
Related Practices:This is related to all things Polyvagal. See the Polvagal Theory film. If you'd like a brief introduction to the theory, visit our Brief Illustrated Guide to Polyvagal Theory. For a comprehensive exploration of the theory with its developer, see The Future of Medicine and Mental Health, with Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD. See Polyvagal Mapping. With regard to healing traumas and down-shifting other distress states, see Healing Trauma, see Healing Neglect, Coming out of Freeze, Coming out of Flight. See Cooling Anger. See Calming Anxiety. See Learn to Set Clear Boundaries. See Hacking the Connection System. For a more conceptual framework, see Core Neurobiological Self.
Who taught us this?
We've been studying this for a long time with a range of mentors and advisors, including Dr. Stephen Porges, Deb Dana LCSW, Dr. Peter Levine, Steven Hoskinson, Anthony 'Twig' Wheeler, Dr. Jeff Rockwell DC MA DOMP and others.
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Who taught us this?
We learned this from many people, and it has become one of the signature elements of our work, which looks to understand the neurophysiological drivers of mental momentum in the body. This unites strands of indigenous awareness with the Polyvagal Theory, marrying ancient ancestral awareness practices with the cutting-edge of neurophysiology
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