2020
“Fight or Flight” or Love?

Digital Only

“Fight or Flight” or Love?

How to achieve a “connecting” response when our emotions are high.

At the Park Together

Imagine you’re walking down a dark alleyway, when suddenly a hooded figure jumps out in front of you from the shadows.

In the milliseconds that follow, your body goes into survival mode—what we call the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This response—which is biologically wired within us—is triggered by the autonomic nervous system, and you don’t have to be in a dark alleyway for it to happen.1 It can happen in any stressful situation, including within your own home when emotions are high.

The “fight, flight, or freeze” response is what we call a protecting response. We’re protecting ourselves and our well-being.

Protecting responses and behaviors are vital to our physical survival when we’re in dangerous situations. However, in relationships, protecting responses can look like arguing or withdrawing from our loved ones.

For example, if we approach our spouse or children to prove we are right, to hurl accusations, or to name-call, or if we withdraw from them, we are in protection mode.

These responses often result in everyone feeling fearful, worried, judgmental, angry, defensive, contemptuous, stressed, or anxious.2

The better reaction when we are not in danger is a connecting response.

Achieving a Connecting Response

Connecting responses, also triggered by our autonomic nervous system, induce feelings of love, joy, appreciation, peace, contentment, withholding judgment, compassion, courage, patience, or forgiveness.3

President Thomas S. Monson (1927–2018) wisely taught, “Never let a problem to be solved become more important than a person to be loved.”4

Connecting responses are easier said than done, however. In the heat of the moment, we have to counter our natural, biological, defensive impulses and instead respond with love.

To achieve that loving response, we must prepare ourselves in advance by (1) making lifestyle changes that allow us to better facilitate the balance between protection and connection and (2) teaching ourselves tactics to respond calmly and appropriately in the moment.

Lifestyle Changes

The following five practices can increase the likelihood that we will have positive, connecting responses with those we care about.

1. Exercise daily.

In addition to improving our overall physical health, daily exercise actually helps the body balance its emotional responses by tempering our protection response to work only when necessary. Set a goal to exercise for 30 minutes a day, six days a week. The exercise need not be intense. Simply walking at a moderate pace reduces stress and anxiety.5

To get the most emotional benefit, exercise outdoors, leave your headphones or music at home, and don’t check your phone. Simply focus on how amazing your body is and take in the wonderful world around you.

2. Get adequate sleep.

Sleep is a key factor in restoring your body, improving mood, and facilitating accurate protection reactions.6 Research shows that eight hours of sleep per night is recommended, with the last half of the eight hours being the most important. During the later hours of sleep, your emotional system (which gives you the ability to balance protecting and connecting responses) is restored. Thus, sleeping only six hours per night can shorten your emotional rejuvenation up to 50 percent!7

The Lord recognizes the value of sleep as well. He counseled, “Cease to sleep longer than is needful; retire to thy bed early, that ye may not be weary; arise early, that your bodies and your minds may be invigorated” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:124).

If you have trouble getting eight hours, try this:

  • Set your bedtime in advance to ensure you get at least eight hours of sleep.

  • Turn off your TV and electronic screens at least one hour before going to bed.

  • Set an alarm and don’t look at any clock until your alarm goes off in the morning.

3. Look for the Lord’s tender mercies every day.

Nephi’s journey in the wilderness with his family was harsh, brutal, life-threatening, and—we must assume—enormously stressful.

Laman and Lemuel, and others who murmured and rebelled, often defaulted to protection mode, lashing out, hurling accusations, and damaging family relationships in the process.

Nephi, however, understood that there are blessings, comfort, and power given to us by the Lord. Nephi wrote that “the tender mercies of the Lord are over all those whom he hath chosen, because of their faith,” and that the Lord is able “to make them mighty even unto the power of deliverance” (1 Nephi 1:20).

Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught, “The Lord’s tender mercies are the very personal and individualized blessings, strength, protection, assurances, guidance, loving-kindnesses, consolation, support, and spiritual gifts which we receive from and because of and through the Lord Jesus Christ.”8

Part of the power of the Lord’s tender mercies comes from recognizing that the experience came from the Lord. Just before Elder Bednar gave his first conference talk as an Apostle, the congregation in the Conference Center sang a hymn that was selected weeks before his new call: “Redeemer of Israel,” Elder Bednar’s favorite. Everyone sang the hymn, but through the Holy Ghost, for Elder Bednar that experience became a merciful reminder of the Lord’s love and mindfulness.9 The calming influence of the Holy Ghost that comes when we recognize the Lord’s tender mercies counters those feelings that put us unnecessarily into protection mode (fear, loneliness, anger, and so on).

Every night prior to sleep, think of the top three to five events of the day and how they may have been tender mercies from the Lord. Keep in mind that these are often small and simple things (for example, seeing a sunset or having a friend to laugh with), though they may have had a profound influence on you as you consider the accompanying positive feeling and attribution, or what these personal and individualized blessings say about you as a person. For instance, the experience might say you are valuable, strong, capable, good, competent, loveable, blessed, or intelligent.

This type of mental exercise can help draw your attention to the ways Heavenly Father blesses you, and making it a regular practice can help you balance protection and connection responses. You also will be better able to feel what the Lord’s tender mercies say about how Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ feel about you and help you recognize the Lord’s hand in your life.10

4. Set relationship-building goals.

Traditional goal setting involves setting specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based goals. Trying this approach with relationship goals, however, can lead to increased stress and anxiety. Thus, relationship goals are usually less specific and without time limits due to the difficulty of defining and measuring desired changes.

A few good examples of goals include:

  • “I want to show more love to my children.”

  • “I want to demonstrate more gratitude for my spouse.”

Setting arbitrary, numerical values to these goals like, “I want to say ‘thank you’ four times a day,” might make our actions, over time, rote and insincere.

Instead, we should follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost to know how best we can meet our goals (see 2 Nephi 32:5).

5. Minister to your spouse and children.

Ministering to our spouse and children is the greatest ministering assignment we’ve been given. As the family proclamation states: “Husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other,” and “parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love.”11

Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society General President, taught: “When we consider how to minister most effectively, we ask, ‘What does she [or he] need?’ Coupling that question with a sincere desire to serve, we are then led by the Spirit to do what would lift and strengthen the individual.”12

If you are looking for a place to begin, start by praying every day to know how to strengthen and improve your family relationships. Then act on the revelation you receive. Our Heavenly Father wants your family to succeed and to be a source of strength and joy. No matter the level of stress and anxiety you may experience, He is there. He knows the individual needs of your family members and will provide direction as you strive to show love to and strengthen one another.

Tactics for Responding in the Moment

And now, here are some tactics you can employ in the heat of the moment to help you achieve a connecting response:

1. Tell yourself you’re not in danger.

This may sound strange, but when you are not experiencing a real threat and sense your emotions rising, pause and tell yourself, “I am not in danger.” This will start to calm your instinctual response and lower your anxiety.

Then ask yourself, “Am I only trying to solve the problem, or am I showing love?”

This will help you resolve the situation “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, … showing forth … an increase of love” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:41–43).

2. Take a time-out and let your emotions run their natural course.

Once our protection response has fired and our body surges with these chemicals, we can’t simply turn them off immediately. The protection response will need to run its course. Rather than respond right then, remove yourself from the situation, allowing yourself to physiologically cool off. Take a walk. Don’t storm off; simply ask to take a break. It may be helpful to have a time-out plan developed ahead of time. We recommend the following:

  • Know where each of you will go (maybe one of you will go downstairs or outside on a walk while the other goes into the bedroom).

  • Have a specific amount of time decided that you will take a break for; when the time is up, meet back together and decide on one of the following three options:

  1. Continue the discussion.

  2. Take an additional time-out.

  3. With the agreement of all involved, table the discussion and come back to it later.

During the time-out it is good to remind ourselves that while we are good at perceiving a reaction, we are not as good at perceiving intentions. When we are ready to initiate a connecting response, we will seek to clarify intentions and to understand. When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, it is good to assume that you don’t understand the intentions or feelings of others. Calmly ask questions to expand your understanding of the intention and motivation of others. The more we know and understand, the less likely our instincts are to conclude that we’re in danger.

3. Make appropriate adaptions for children and adolescents.

Balancing our protecting and connecting response is something we develop over time through experience. Thus, young children and adolescents may not be as developed physiologically and therefore may have a harder time responding with connection.13 We, as adults, should demonstrate loving patience and respond accordingly.

For example, when our children experience emotional tantrums, we as caregivers want to jump in and correct the behavior, as fast as possible. However, as with adults, it would be better to wait and first allow the child’s protection response to run its course. This might look like validating emotions or sitting with your child through the tantrum, before launching into a punishing or teaching mode.14 Also, it is important to remember that we should refrain from using shame or punishment for naturally occurring emotions.

Christ modeled this patient teaching method. When the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him an adulterous woman, Christ could have jumped into lecture mode and told the woman what she had done wrong and the consequences that would surely come from disobeying God’s law. But He didn’t. He showed mercy and briefly told her to “go, and sin no more” (John 8:11).

The Master of Connecting Responses

Throughout His life, Christ was the perfect example of the connecting response. When he witnessed those in need, he drew near to them and connected with them in an intimate, personal way, healing them, serving them, loving them completely. Likewise, when emotions were high all around Him, He patiently and kindly refrained from striking back.

That is the model we are to adopt as spouses and parents, the model of the Savior. As we do, as we actively seek a connecting response, family relationships will be preserved and love can flourish in our homes.