A man sits in his car, traffic inching along, everything slowed but steadily moving. Music playing as background to the crawl home. The pace quickens, space opens, then slows for no discernible reason than the rhythm of the traffic that day. There’s stress in this everyday monitoring of thickened traffic.. Then, as the pace picks up a car in the lane next to him darts in front of him. No direction signal, no warning. Startled, the man brakes sharply, blows his horn, starts screaming at the quick darting driver, pounds his steering wheel, swearing mightily, and …doesn’t stop. Heat rising in his body, eyes bugged, blood pressure surging, he’s still at it. Not that this has any effect on the other driver. They’re off and down the road. Our driver, though, is not done. The complete felt lack of control over this traffic encounter he’s just had scares and enrages him. After a minute or so, some small element of thought arises ok, now calm down but our man’s system isn’t ready for it yet, a fight explosion still in force, adrenaline not yet spent. Heat still surging he’s still screaming obscenities. Another few moments now with traffic opening up and flowing, he feels himself coming down. Breath returns to normal, he’s on his way home and a there’s a palpable sense that’s he’s just been through something. The thought rises, where did that one come from?
Herein lies an everyday example of Fight, that part of us that pushes out against perceived threats intruding upon us from outside. This is a biological response, not a considered thought-out process but one with the immediacy and intensity of one’s survival being under threat. Perceived threat is the key to a Fight response. Our driver might not by any standard definition be having his survival threatened but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel that way in the moment. Fight is in essence about protection of the self, about threat perceived and responded to. As a biological survival tactic, Fight is not about a logical thought process mediated by our frontal cortex but is about action taken now in response to conditions arising in the immediacy of the moment. Fight is the work of the brainstem, known in McLean’s model of the Triune Brain (1967) as the reptilian brain; stimulus received and quickly reacted to with a marked absence of thought.
Fight can be seen in the raised voice, the clenched fist, bugged eyes and aggressive stance of making one’s position firmly known. Fight sets the line in the sand, the protective boundary that no one can cross. Fight may take physical form in aggressive action but doesn’t need to. It makes noise, holds its position inviolate. In relationships, Fight often demands that its position be made by force of its presence. It will be heard!
Fight has a degree of spontaneous action, a neurologic response that makes it distinct from the manipulative intent of directed anger or intimidation. Examples of that may be bullying, power grabbing or one-upmanship but there some element of thought or intent is involved and because of that, it doesn’t have the same quality of spontaneous eruption that Fight does. As with our driver’s response Fight may seem to come out of nowhere and that’s the way it is usually perceived. Fight may have memory available to it, of all the wrongs or violence that have been perpetrated upon the self. As with any habitual action, it can wear a neural groove in our brain over time and become over-determined where the ignition point – also known as the ‘kindling’ point – is lowered to where a stimulus may seem small but the response huge. As with any habitual unconsidered action, the response itself becomes automatic and problematic, to the person themselves and to anyone in their immediate environment. People pegged as having ‘anger issues’ may be having Fight responses that have been left unmediated, unexplored, unattended to. At that point, they may be out of control of the person involved.
The kindling effect happens when our sympathetic nervous system is in a mode of continual activation, such as chronic child abuse or exposure to home violence or battlefield assault. It is never fully calmed down with parasympathetic de-escalation. Fight reacts impulsively with little thought or consideration available (think domestic violence perpetrators). The task for someone caught in a cycle of chronic Fight is to start to catch themselves in the act. This is not easy and usually requires the help of another person who can act as witness, as an auxiliary frontal cortex. Thought and self reflection need to be learned and accessed with the goal being to calm or even abort the thunder of Fight’s reactivity. Moving out of triggered – or spontaneous – sympathetic arousal means finding one’s own optimal range of arousal. This is a position of acknowledging feelings, thoughts, perceptions, memory and having the ability to hold awareness of them before responding to them. It means having both feet on the ground while perceiving the environment around us and the environment inside us too. It means building a Self having responses rather than the responses driving us.
© 2015 Peter Goetz