One of the big reasons we practice fire drills is because one of our normal human responses to loud noises is to freeze. This response is adaptive in some contexts, but if the loud noise is trying to tell you to get out because there is a fire -- freezing can be deadly. That is why we practice the response of standing up and exiting while listening to a loud noise. When our brain goes into panic mode, like when we see a snake or hear a loud unexpected noise -- our cognitive processes change drastically.
We don’t choose our response the same way we choose what we want for dinner. Our primitive brain takes over, our heart rate goes up, our stomach sinks and we might feel a sudden urge to run, freeze, cry, fight or pee. Some of us experience tingling hands and feet, dizziness, or a sense of being disconnected from our body. All of these are clues that our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) has clicked on. When this happens we are no longer able to think clearly, we lose a lot of IQ points and we may say or do things we later regret or feel embarrassed.
This physical response doesn’t require our actual life be in danger as it would be with a tiger or a gun. We can respond this way to social rejection, our mom being really mean, a scary story or a stick that looks like a snake. Again this is a physical process, our body is being flooded with stress hormones and as long as adrenaline and cortisol are pumping through our veins, we will have foggy brains and have to rely on habits (things we already know how to do) because we literally cannot think straight. At this point our frontal cortex is shut off and our logic abilities fly out the window, we cannot make wise decisions about how to respond to the threat. When the threat is a tiger the response is straight forward, fight, flight, or freeze pretty much sums it up. When the threat is our boss giving us difficult feedback, none of these options are necessarily in line with our best selves and our values or in our best interests. For a fire drill to be effective, the map and plan has to be drawn up before the emergency, and then we have to practice the plan, with our bodies, so that our bodies know what to do, even if our brain is shut off.
Step one in your fire drill is to tune up and tune into your fire alarm system. When a tiger walks in the room you don’t need an alarm, the tiger is the alarm, but when we are responding to social rejection or vague insults, the triggers can be more mysterious. All the symptoms I described can serve as your fire alarm, but that requires that we learn to pay attention to the messages coming from our bodies. Those of us who need a fire alarm were probably taught at our mother’s knee to ignore our bodies and all the messages coming from them, so this first step is neither easy nor will it be effective over night.
At first we may not hear the alarm going off until it’s a five alarm and our pants are on fire. The more we mindfully and gently give our attention to our bodies, the more fine-tuned we can become at hearing the alarms and implementing our plan before we get burned. There are hundreds of books and websites devoted to many types of mindfulness practices that can help us practice “noticing”.
The second step is to make a map and plan. Think through the times when you have been triggered in your past. Think through the things that happened just before, hours before, even days before. Make a note of the types of experiences that push your buttons and get your heart rate going. Then make a note of the ways you have traditionally responded. Do you lose your temper and say hurtful things? Do you withdraw and stonewall your loved ones? Do you cry or throw things or literally run away?
Keep in mind that none of these responses are bad in and of themselves, anger can protect us, withdrawing can give us time to heal, crying is a wonderful way to express real emotions. Sometimes these responses are exactly what we need to do to keep ourselves safe. But sometimes we sense that we are responding to sticks that looked like snakes instead of real snakes, sometimes, looking back, we can see our response was bigger than the trigger or misdirected toward the wrong person or just out of whack in some way.
When we sense that we would like to respond differently to our alarms, this is where we start to consider what responses we would like to have instead.
Here are several considerations to keep in mind as you “make your plan.”
1. At a minimum, it takes 20-30 minutes for those stress hormones to leave your body.
2. Start with low expectations. Keep your foggy-brained “triggered self” in mind as you plan. Think of things you can actually do while full of crazy-making stress hormones. If your usual response is to yell, you can’t “just choose to be zen” as a plan. Maybe you could say “I’m sorry I’m having a moment, I need to take 20 minutes to collect myself.” Then do some deep breathing exercises.
3. Your first plan may not work. That’s okay! Think of this as a hypothesis and your first attempt to implement it as a test of the hypothesis. Then put on your lab coat, analyze the data that comes back and adjust your plan according to the new data.
4. You can’t just plan the fire drill, you actually have to practice it with your body. Stand in front of the mirror, imagine yourself looking at your mean mom, and practice saying over and over, “I need to take a break from this conversation for a few minutes because I can feel myself getting upset, can we meet back here in an hour.”
5. Sometimes the fire drill is enough to help us break our unhelpful emotional habits that rise up anytime we get upset, and sometimes we need to do some deeper work to figure out the buttons and triggers and wounds that are leading to our needing a fire drill in the first place.
Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC
Lisa specializes in women's issues, faith transitions, sexual concerns, LGBT+ journeys, trauma, anxiety disorders, body image concerns, and depression. She offers both coaching/consultation and therapy services to individuals, couples and families.