As a family therapist in Washington DC and nearby Bethesda, MD, I often notice that the most resilient clients are those who manage shocking news with connection, courage and compassion. We become shocked when we must discern if an event, person, situation is a threat or not to our personal safety or character. When we are confronted with an uncomfortable, surprising and sometimes scary moment, our amygdala—our alarm center in our brain–kicks off a reaction. We react in one of three ways— fight, flight or freeze.
When we feel threatened and turn against others to protect ourselves, we fight—we otherwise become aggressive verbally or physically, argue, or become generally angry towards the circumstance or person. Or we might fight by trying to aggressively pursue or assertively fix the problem–we react rather than fully assessing the problem and situation at hand.
Flight is often characterized by literally fleeing the scene and wanting as much distance as possible from the shocking moment or stimuli. This may also include avoidance, denial, or pretending that the moment isn’t happening or didn’t happen at all.
A third reaction, often linked with trauma, is freeze. This can look like momentary paralysis of all senses including the ability to process what’s happening in real time. Oftentimes, I find that individuals favor one instinctual reaction, but this is not universal. You may find that you have a combination of these reactions depending on the circumstance and if it’s linked to a past event.
Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when trying to manage shocking news.
- Identify what your default reaction is in a moment of shock–fight, flight, or freeze.
Once you know whether you’re prone to fight, flight or freeze, you can begin to understand what you might need to soothe yourself in a moment before you react. Notice your physical triggers. This may include: clenching your fists, shaking your head, rolling your eyes, fidgeting, sighing (this is different from deep breathing), face getting hot, heart racing, or some other personalized reaction. If you are in true danger where bodily harm can come to you or someone around you, defer to an emergency plan to ensure the least harm and maximum safety. If not, continue below.
- Take a deep breath and three steps back or to the side.
While this sounds quite elementary, getting your mind and body in sync is a recipe for regulation. If you don’t have space to step back or to the side, step in place. Avoid stepping forward as this can seem aggressive. The time that it takes you to do this and regulate may be enough time to avoid a reaction that you may later regret. Take time to think about a constructive, positive reaction that you can take once you are calmed down.
Some examples include:
- Asking a clarifying question.
- Asking to take a break.
- Getting a cup of water.
- Staying silent.
Next, describe the circumstance step by step to make sure that you’re checking the facts and not misunderstanding important information.
- Identify the automatic thought.
This can vary based on your own history, your family or a loved one. Recall different shocking moments and identify the core automatic thoughts. Some common automatic thoughts are:
“Something bad is going to happen.”
“I’m going to get hurt.”
“I’m going to get in trouble”
“I can’t do anything right.”
“I’m all alone.”
Most automatic thoughts spiral from fear and worry about a negative, irreparable consequence. I want to point out that there are instances where this is true. Often it is our reaction however that can catalyze or magnify the circumstance that is destined for a negative outcome.
A minor example is when a child gets into trouble. If they then yell at a teacher or throw a chair, they are now in more trouble than they already were. If they run away, the reaction from the authority may be magnified as well. This is also true in relationships between adults. If one person is asking about their partner’s follow through on a request, and the partner becomes angry and accusatory, it will likely escalate into an argument. Or if the requesting partner’s favored reaction is flight, s/he may drop the inquiry altogether. Once identified, move on to the next step.
- Expand the thought.
By this, I challenge you to shift that thought by a few degrees. Ask yourself, can I know with 100% certainty that the thought is true? Often, the answer is sort of–but not with 100% certainty. The objective here is not to deny pieces of truth in the automatic thought, but rather to expand on it beginning with tiny words: but and so. While I use those often, there are other ways to shift the mindset and give yourself some credit first. Here are some examples:
“Something bad is going to happen but I can manage it and repair it.”
“I’m going to get hurt so I need to stay calm and find a way to a safer place.”
“I’m going to get in to trouble so I should probably stay quiet, so I can make my case.”
“I can do some things right, but I know I have some work to do in this area.”
“I feel alone and maybe often am, but not 100% of the time. I have people I can rely on.”
If you have default reaction, it will likely take more than an intention to change an otherwise instinctual reaction. Notice those physical triggers of shock and practice taking a deep breath and three steps back or to the side. This will start to give you some time to have a reaction that is more thoughtful and intentional.
Parents: When a child shares something unexpected, it can feel a bit shocking and upsetting. Your reaction as a parent to them is important in shaping what your child’s favored, or default reaction will be. In the next post, I will share some strategies to manage shock as a parent.