By Dawson Church, PhD, EFT TRN-3
Claudette, a woman in her mid 20s, was asked as part of an exercise at an EFT Level 1 workshop, to find a minor annoyance to tap on. She said that her annoyance was that her partner, Jim, “doesn’t pull his weight around the housework.”
When asked to tune in to what she felt in her body when thinking about Jim and housework, she said she felt pressure in her head.
I asked her about the earliest time she had ever felt such pressure, and she described times when, as a little girl, she had watched her father and uncles lounging around the house while her mother did all the housework and waited on them.
She pictured several specific occasions when this occurred. “I was so angry,” she said. “They sat around, drinking and talking, watching my mother work.”
She tapped on her emotional intensity until each of these scenes was at a 0 on the SUD Level of Intensity scale from 0 - 10 with 10 being the strongest feeling.
“Tell me again about Jim and housework,” I asked. “He actually does quite a lot,” she said. “The real problem is me. I’m too demanding, always ragging on him, saying that he doesn’t pull his weight around the house.”
Her chances of having a long and successful relationship had just increased dramatically! Jim hadn’t changed one iota. By going to the source of her pain and tapping on that, Claudette had defused one of the detonators that threatened to blow up their relationship.
Why do you suppose Claudette acted the way she did?
Her reaction had little to do with the present situation, even though she believed that Jim was causing her emotional response. In reality, early childhood memories buried deep in her brain were producing her current response. Due to her strong emotional reaction during those early experiences, her brain perceived those events as a threat to her survival.
Her brain did the smartest thing possible: It attached a “red tag” to situations that resembled the bad ones she’d experienced as a child. This vital protective mechanism allowed her brain to identify new situations that might hold similar threats, and react accordingly.
A brain that does this well is a valuable asset if you’re living in a primitive environment. For our distant ancestors a million years ago, the ability to respond quickly to threats meant the difference between life and death. The brain evolved accordingly, generation by generation.
In each generation, those with the fastest stress response were the best equipped to notice and react to dangers like predators and enemies.
They were more likely to live, and pass on their genes. Their more amiable companions were more likely to fall victim to those predators, and thus fail to produce offspring. With each generation, the stress response became more finely honed. Today, you’re the product of hundreds of generations of honing the most exquisitely sensitive stress response. That’s why, like Claudette, you react so quickly to problems.
How Your Brain and Body Sabotage Good Intentions
Another analogy for your brain’s threat-response system is a platoon of soldiers. Imagine a group of miniature warriors in the middle of your brain, your personal Imperial Guard. If they are highly alert, and give the alarm quickly when an enemy attacks, the whole organism, like a whole country, survives. If their response time is slow, the whole organism dies.
Although this ability was essential to the survival of our Paleolithic ancestors, it is not helpful to us in trying to handle the world we find ourselves in today. There are few predators in our environment. The only place we’re likely to see them is in a movie or in a zoo. Yet our brain’s Imperial Guard is always on high alert.
Like Claudette, the guard can’t tell the difference between a real enemy and an imaginary one. If our partner says or does something that triggers us, our Imperial Guard will sound the signal for attack. It overrules our logical mind. That mind, located in the frontal lobes at the front of the brain, just behind the forehead, is responsible for executive functions like decision-making. It can think coolly and rationally when faced with a problem.
It’s like the Wisdom Council of the kingdom. It can weigh alternatives, look at different aspects of a problem, sort fact from fiction, and consider the consequences of an action.
When the Imperial Guard kicks down the door, yelling, “We’re under attack!” though, the whole kingdom springs into action. The Imperial Guard overrules the Wisdom Council, and takes control. It doesn’t think about long-term consequences, only about immediate safety. It acts fast; the genes that code for the biochemicals that our bodies produce under stress spring into action in just a couple of seconds.
For that reason, they’re called “immediate early genes.” Fast action is essential to survival, and it occurs much faster than the conscious mind can think.
After you’ve responded to a stress cue, and perhaps said something angry to your lover in the heat of the moment, your mind might later collect itself and think of many smarter things it might have said. In the moment of stress, however, under the influence of those fast-acting immediate early genes, your brain prompts you to blurt out a hurtful statement that would have been better left unsaid.
Our midbrain threat-response machinery drives the fight-flight-freeze response, which I usually abbreviate to FFF. FFF was strongly adaptive for your ancestors. When they encountered an enemy, those that fought, ran away, or froze were more likely to survive. Those who fought might successfully beat off an invader.
Those who fled might be able to hide till the invader was gone.
Those who froze might have been taken into captivity as slaves, but that was still better than death. Each one of the three FFF behaviors is better than the alternative, so they’ve become built into the fundamentals of our body’s biology.
FFF is a fascinating lens through which to view relationship behaviors. Each of the three Fs corresponds to typical ways you or your loved one might act. Here’s an abbreviated version of a typical male-female spat. Jack has a habit of leaving his dirty clothes lying around the house, and Jill is growing tired of picking up after him.
Jack: Where are my work boots?
Jill: I think I saw them in a pile in the corner of the dining room.
Jack: What are they doing there? (Fight)
Jill: I wish you’d pick up after yourself. (Fight)
Jack: I have so much going on at work. I don’t need this. (Flight)
Jill: You only think about your own needs. What about me trying to take care of the kids after a full day at work? (Fight)
Jack: There’s no point in talking to you. You’re so irrational. (Flight)
Jill starts sobbing. (Freeze)
Jack: I don’t need this. (Fight)
Jack goes into his den and watches TV. (Flight)
On the surface, this looks like a disagreement about picking up the clothes. Yet it’s actually a reenactment of behavioral patterns that are as ancient as the dinosaurs. The way our brains are set up, though perfectly suited to the archaic world in which they evolved, wreaks havoc in our love relationships. We respond out of all proportion to an imagined offense.
These responses were strongly encoded in our brains, and are difficult to change.
As an exercise, start analyzing your problems with your relationship partners by tagging which of them reflect fight, which look like flight, and which resemble freezing. You’ll likely be surprised to notice that virtually all your emotionally charged interactions fall into one of those three categories.
The FFF response doesn’t just involve our brains. Survival was so important to our ancestors that multiple redundant backup systems evolved to ensure it. The endocrine system in particular, which produces hormones, plays a key role in the stress response.
The two main stress hormones are adrenaline and cortisol. When you feel emotionally triggered, your endocrine system floods your body with an increased dose of these two hormones. They are “messenger molecules,” triggering cascades of molecular changes in all the other systems of your body. Adrenaline acts fastest, within a couple of seconds, while cortisol takes a few seconds longer.
The signals they produce affect your biology in profound ways.
Your circulatory system changes. Your heart pounds, and the vessels carrying blood to your muscles enlarge. Your breathing speeds up, as your respiratory system goes into high gear, forcing more oxygen into your bloodstream. Your liver dumps glucose into your bloodstream, giving you a quick energy boost of sugar. The pupils of your eyes dilate to take in more light.
Nonessential body systems are shut down. You don’t need functions like digestion, reproduction, or immunity when a tiger is chasing you. You need the ability to get out of harm’s way—FFF. Cortisol triggers changes such as constriction of the vessels carrying blood to your digestive system and reproductive system, forcing that blood into the muscles. Up to 70% of the blood in your forebrain drains out to be sent to your muscles because you don’t need the ability to compose a symphony or perform calculus when a lion bursts out of the grass.
Your immune system and all the biological mechanisms of cell repair and regeneration come to a screeching halt.
Because of that blood flow out of your forebrain, you’re not very smart when you’re stressed. When you’re upset, anxious, fearful, or angry with your relationship partner, your Imperial Guard is running your body’s show, and your Wisdom Council is offline. That’s why, when you’re flooded with stress hormones like cortisol, your mind is groggy.
If you’ve gone to couples counseling, you’ve probably discovered that the agreements you make in the therapist’s office don’t last when you’re back home.
You made vows when you got married, and your Wisdom Council forebrain, the thinking part of your brain, really believed them. Yet when you got stressed, the Imperial Guard in your midbrain took over, and you violated your vows.
You might have set intentions or said prayers with a minister or spiritual counselor, and promptly failed to implement them when real life called upon you to do so. You might have felt very bad about what you did to your spouse, but you couldn’t help yourself, driven by these very strong primitive urges.
That’s because in the therapist or priest’s office, you were in a safe environment without the stress of real life. Your Wisdom Council was in charge, and you could talk about your marriage rationally and calmly. Back home, when triggered by your spouse, the Wisdom Council is overthrown, and the Imperial Guard controls you. You say and do things you would never say or do in the therapist’s office, or in front of the priest. Y
our best intentions go out the window, and you’re back in caveman behavior.
You act from primitive instincts, forgetting all the fine cognitive tools you learned in couples therapy. When you’re flooded with fear hormones, you don’t have the ability to empathize, or relate to your partner other than as a fear object. You treat your partner badly, acting out your old dysfunctional scripts, despite your best intentions.
This article is excerpted from the book EFT for Love Relationships,
by Dawson Church, PhD,