You might have noticed that there’s been an addition to the concept of ‘fight or flight’ as they pertain to stressful arguments. More commonly accepted now is that it’s ‘fight, flight or freeze’: an example might be that in a given stressful moment, one might get defensive and argue (fight) go quiet and agree just to get away (flight) or slow down to the point of inaction, possibly seeming non-reactive to people around them (freeze).
FIGHT: If you’re the type to confront the stress, you probably experience a rush of adrenaline when a challenge happens: your fists ball, veins rise along your neck and forehead and possibly, you raise your voice or decrease your sentence lengths. You make your opinion known quickly and may not see a lot of nuance or grey areas if you’re feeling the Fight impulse.
FLIGHT: If you’re more inclined to avoid confrontations or get away from them quickly, you might also experience that same burst of adrenaline, but instead of moving you forward, you might feel yourself backing up. You might put your hands up, or tilt your body away from the argument. You might say things like ‘you’re right’ or ‘I know’ rather than defend your beliefs. You might sacrifice asking for things you need or want to avoid confrontation in the first place, or leave out bits of information that you believe might trigger altercations.
FREEZE: If you’re the kind to lock up emotionally when an argument starts, that same burst of adrenaline might serve to put a sort of force field around you, muffling the sound of the other person and making it difficult to talk. You might stand still even if the other person is barreling towards you or fail to respond to other bids for your attention, even if they’re not directly related to the argument – a cell phone ringing or an elevator ping.
There are examples in nature of all these behaviors, and no one reaction is healthier than others… humans, though, react uniquely to stress, and stay in one of these modes for far longer than our physiology is suited for. In other words, long after the stressful argument has happened, you might still be in the mode you reacted with.
A person who responds with the fight mechanic might fail to differentiate between the argument about who takes the dog for a walk and bring that anger to work the next day. A person who flees might agree with a difficult boss that moving a project deadline up is no problem, and a person who freezes might fail to notice a stoplight change days later in traffic.
Knowing how you react in stressful situations, (and how the people you’re closest to react) is a good first step to countering the effects of those arguments. Checking yourself when you say, feel your fists ball up or your eyes straying to the exits… is this an appropriate response to what’s happening or is this leftover from an argument with someone else?