Stress Response and Relationships

It's the start of flu season, so in my house that means flu vaccines. This year, the American Academy of Pediatrics is not recommending the nasal spray vaccine, so that means shots. Each one of my kids has their own unique reaction to the news that they will be getting a shot. While one immediately enters into negotiations with me regarding what he might get in return for succumbing willingly to the pain, another summons enough courage to make it to the doctor's office, only to kick the nurse, scream and hide behind the garbage can in the doctor's office. As his anxiety level increases, I feel my body warm and my blood pressure rise. The air in the small exam room thins as tension fills the space. I feel the need to DO something, anything that will calm my screeching, terrified child. I can see the muscles in his body tense, his breathing becoming shallow and he is uncharacteristically aggressive. Anticipation has reached it peak, and his body is now responding to the threat. 

What is happening? He is a logical kid who loves science. He knows how vaccines work, and agrees that our family should get vaccinated against the flu. So why, at the moment of truth, can he not control his response? It's simple really; he knows the shot is going to hurt! He has had a shot before, and he remembers the pain. He is anticipating the threat and his stress response has engaged. He is in a state of fight, flight or freeze. What some refer to as our "reptilian brain" has taken over. The sympathetic nervous system has been activated by the presence of a perceived danger, and his body is responding to the surge of adrenaline that is meant to help move him out of danger. This response is why we can jump out of the way of a moving car without thinking, or catch our baby in a split second when she is about to fall. It's an invaluable response which has kept us alive for thousands of years. Yet, sometimes it is activated when we don't need it, or continues to be engaged when the threat has subsided, and this creates a state of distress. 

 Seeing my child in a state of distress triggered the same fight, flight or freeze response in me. We are relational creatures and have a natural, biological response to seeing another human being in danger. It's beautiful really, our innate tendency to care for one another. Our natural, protective response to another person's stress is magnified when it is someone we love, like a child or romantic partner. Before I go further into how stress response can negatively impact a relationship, I want to stay for a moment with the positive aspects of our stress response. It keeps us alive! It keeps those we love safe, it connects us. We need it. Catarina Andrade lays out an argument in defense of stress, that I think is worth a read. She points out that eliminating stress is not possible, or even preferable, so she encourages us to think about how we can change our relationship to stress. 

Now that we've acknowledged the positive and important role stress response plays in our lives and relationships, let's get back to the doctor's office with my terrified child. He was yelling at me to stay away from him, scared of me, the person in his life who most wants to protect him! I'm sure you can imagine, it did not feel good.

Think back to a fight you've had with your significant other. One where you could not believe he or she did what they did to you! You're steaming mad, but your partner is confused, unsure of why you're so upset. Our stress response cues us to detect threat, and biases us to identify threat where there might not be any. When our stress response is engaged, we see even those who are safe as a potential threat. In his article on Psychology Today, Russell B. Lemle, Ph.D., explains How Threat Emotions Cause us to Misread Our Partner. The same is true for all of our relationships, and the more intimate they are, like parent/child or romantic partner, the more intense our response will be.

So what can we do about it? How can we recognize when our stress response is useful, and when it's not?

Dr. Daniel Siegel explains the brain science behind mindfulness and how we can use it to engage in empathy for ourselves and others in this youtube video. He has numerous publications and trainings on what he has termed Mindsight. The techniques he describes have been used for centuries in mindfulness practices such as yoga, tai chai and meditation to help people become more intentional in their response to stress. The deep breathing to engage our parasympathetic nervous system (the system that calms the stress response), and the ability to slow down and use the more developed, mature part of our brain to decide how we want to respond, are skills that must be learned and practiced. We can't eliminate our stress response, nor do we want to or we might not catch that falling baby, but through practice we can begin to recognize when it is activated and decide if we need it or not.

So, returning again to the stress filled exam room. What could I do? Poor kiddo was flooded and in that moment he didn't have the skills to regulate himself. What I could do was model regulating myself and trust that he will learn something from watching me. I reminded myself that he hasn't had much practice with recognizing and deactivating his stress response. We will continue to practice, in times of calm when no threat is present, how to recognize the signals his body is giving him and how to settle himself when he wants to. Through modeling, practice and co-regulation, his abilities to regulate himself will emerge and our attachment to each other will deepen. The same is true in our romantic relationships, the more we utilize mindfulness techniques and focus on co-regulation, the more empathy we will feel and the stronger our attachment will become. 

-Kori Hennessy, MA