Counselling session 3: Fight vs Flight
Well. Mind blown does not cover it.
Why isn't all of this common knowledge? Or commonly taught?
Biography of a nobody day 36. February 5th 2021.
My counselling session was at 11:30 so I had a pretty chill morning planned as these sessions so far have sent me one way or another so I wanted to have an open mind. I got home and cleaned up a little, had some breakfast and made a drink... Then I got a call from Bee. She has been coughing pretty bad and her boss has requested she come home and test for Covid... it is 10AM. I can make this. I rushed off to get Bee and realised that meant Alex needed to be picked up too... Ugh. I managed to sort all and got home at 11:33. My counsellor called at 11:30 whilst I was in the car. I explained the situation and he said he would call back in five, that would give me time to get in and make myself a brew before the session.
I made a tea put in my AirPods and awaited the phone. I wasn't expecting a magician to be calling me.
As last week- let me just make it 100% clear I AM NOT a therapist, counsellor or mental health expert. I wouldn't be in the mess I am in if I was- but writing about it helps me. I am just letting you know my experience and what I managed to glean from my counselling session. I may have theory warped or facts wrong- but it makes sense to me and is definitely helping me heal the way I have it figured. The way I present it (quite possibly wrong) may not help you and could do the opposite. Always seek help from a professional if you are struggling- read my blog for fun. I am certainly glad I finally had the capacity to seek help. With that disclaimer out of the way, let's break down my third counselling session.
Setting the scene.
I began as usual with explaining the past week. I explained that after the last session I went a little hyper sensitive trying to identify my triggers and figure out whether I was anxious, frustrated or whatever. I became a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy as I told myself I was in an 'easily irritable mood' and attempted to cure it but just made myself more irritable. I figured out what I was doing to myself by the morning after and stopped overthinking it then ended up having a really good week. I used the chewing gum technique, I walked places, I moved around more. It all helped. Sensing my interest in the theory side of depression- or disconnection my counsellor calls it- he decided to take it a step further and blow my mind. I always laughed when people said so many things relate to your childhood.
Polyvagal theory in therapy.
He started by introducing me to the actual theory that he had used to help me define my state last week, Polyvagal theory. The Polyvagul theory -in laymen terms- relates to the part of your brain that focuses on fear and enforces your fight or flight mode to take over- the vagus nerve. Or so the theory suggests. I believe the theory attempts to relate the vagus nerve to emotion regulation and social connection as well. I didn't realise I was particularly struggling with fear but I am clearly struggling with social connection and emotion regulation.
To save going off too far into something I don't truly understand- if you want to do your own research my counsellor recommended this book: Polyvagul theory in therapy, By Deb Dana. It is now in my kindle read list and I plan on smashing it this week.
How it all relates to fear for me: Fight vs Flight.
I was told first about how everyone develops their default fight vs flight as children usually in the first instance where we feel fear, the fear of abandonment. The fear of being abandoned specifically by your parents. This isn't to say I was abandoned- because I certainly wasn't- and I do not know how far out this theory moves if you actually were abandoned, but back to me. Being the middle child in my family, my first experience of abandonment would be when my younger brother was born and the attention of my mother moved from me to him. I would have been around 3 at the time. Now obviously as an adult I know that her attention moving to a new baby makes absolute sense but as children we don't think that way- so we seek attention and approval. Here is where you develop your first fight or flight responses.
Some children seek attention by having a tantrum. This is the fight response. We didn't go too deep into this because after hearing majority of my life story in session one my counsellor decided I chose flight. I chose to be the good little boy and look for attention and approval that way.
Obviously I can't remember that far back into my childhood so my counsellor asked me to relate it to my life as an older kid. He asked if I perhaps tidied up the house when my parents were out? Did I try and make them things? Did I got to bed when asked? ... I started to think back and related it to me and then came up with an objection. I did try to be an angel at home, but I was a nightmare at school. He then confirmed that this cemented me as flight over fight. Where I sought approval at home I would push away anger, objection or upset and say 'ok' or 'I will help'. At school I needed to let some of those pent up feelings out- and since I didn't subconsciously fear abandonment at school I would act up.
Fight vs Flight in later life.
Now I wanted to deny all of this and how easily I was being opened up. I think everyone wants to consider their default is fight over flight. So my counsellor doubled down. He asked if I called a friend and asked if they wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant and they replied 'no' because they had one last night- I would then say 'ok what would you like?' or say 'Yeah I don't mind what we have'. Not protest even though I really wanted Chinese. My mind then flooded with conversations with friends, my partner and every time I have said I don't mind when I did. The reason my reaction to objection is to smother away protest and seek approval is because I activate flight over flight. My childhood taught me that being good and helpful got me what I needed. It got me where I wanted to go. That is not a problem unless you take it to the extreme like I did.
Fight vs Flight in my marriage.
So by now I am pretty convinced- but the pessimist in me is telling me most people are like that? Though in the back of my mind I was thinking of one of my brothers who used to tantrum as a kid- and if he asked me if I wanted a meal at the Chinese and I said no because I had one last night- he would still be going to the Chinese. He is fight. Makes sense, and that stark contrast took me 90% of the way to believing. My counsellor then put the last nail in my coffin of disbelief.
Having broken down my marriage pretty extensively in my first session, my counsellor had a few notes to go off here. He started by saying that I would obviously try my best to make my wife happy, and to do that I would seek approval. The first instance of fight vs flight here is when my wife asked if her sister could move in. Rather than throwing protest and saying no- I sought her approval through fear of abandonment, I drowned out the frustration and anger and my flight mode took over. All the while I am thinking... Man I am a pretty nice guy- I am easy going- but my subconscious inner child is drowning out protest to my own detriment. Life continued. Then when my wife asked if her Dad could move in, I double down. I am already seeking approval and it worked- she is still with me after moving her sister in so my subconscious flight mode betrays me again and I accept without protest.
Again. This isn't just what happened- this is my counsellor telling me how he thinks it will have happened as I am silently nodding along like a the cheshire cat.
I am living life thinking I can handle all of this, I am a good husband, and then we have our daughter. We have our daughter and her cousin now decided he is going to spend EVERY evening at our house because he cant have kids. I don't protest. My wife loves having him around and it is another person to dote on our daughter. Again, my subconscious flights from the situation to my own detriment. I think I am being a good partner, I am being a good guy- but why isn't my wife thinking about my feelings? Eventually my protest all floods out at once. And it did. I can remember specifically when it happened, I was being laughed at by my wife's cousin and sister over my inability to wash clothes. I WASHED ALL THE F*CKING CLOTHES- HE LIVES AT HOME WHERE HIS MUM WASHES HIS CLOTHES. In fact, I pay the bills to this house where you (her sister) also get to live. My mind all of a sudden couldn't contain my protests. I told the sister (who is 3 years my senior) to move out into her own place and find a proper job. I asked the cousin to kindly F*CK off and visit far less frequently- 'live your own life not mine'. Finally I asked my wife to pleaaaaase go to couples counselling with me as we barely spoke to each other anymore. Part of it will have been stress, part of it will have been having a newborn, part of it constantly having 2 extra people overly involved in our relationship. My wife's Dad had already gone by this point- just before our daughter was born- though to be honest he wasn't so bad to have around. My wife wouldn't engage with me and refused to try and build a bridge back between us because I didn't want her sister with us anymore. She had been with us 4 years by this point. I finally ended our marriage around 6 months after not being able to hold it all in anymore. The frustrating thing is I didn't realise I was holding anything in- it was just life and my subconscious flight mode kicking down the resistance I should have had far earlier to some of these things. Can I really then blame my now ex-wife for taking it badly that I suddenly resisted things I had previously been ok with. Those thoughts can be packed away for another day.
Obviously there are nuances and exceptions to the rule- and the fact I was so flight at home is what has pushed my career. I am so fight automatically at work to counteract how I have been at home and socially that I have not felt threatened to move ahead and request raises or training. So in that sense- the lack of balance was a good thing- though I wouldn't recommend it.
How knowing this helped me.
I have thought since the day that I got signed off that I am broken. That the me before I got signed off was so much better than the broken version of myself that I am now. It turns out that I was perhaps always a little bit broken and I am only now strong enough to start picking up those pieces and live a balanced life. There are people who obviously get in a lot of trouble for being too far the opposite of me- they have too much fight and cannot control it. They cannot help but exert anger and frustration- yet funnily enough if I had exerted a little more of that myself my marriage may not have broken down. I am happily divorced though- the comeback from that train of thought for me is that I am very close still with some of my ex-wife's family who saw how much of an advantage she took over me and my good will.
I was relentlessly berated and rather than resisting I only tried harder to prove my worthiness and earn her respect. The me I am now would not suffer that ever again- so if anything- the perfect version of myself before depression that I thought could handle anything was far more broken than this version of me with depression. Realising that literally removes such a weight off my shoulders.
It didn't finish there. I am still in a session remember.
By this point I am not sure whether to laugh or cry. One thing is for sure I am convinced that this counsellor is some sort of magician or life long fan of mine. Either way he had spelt out so much about how I react to things and who I thought I was that I am not much of the enigma as I always figured myself for. We then delved slightly further into how to pull myself away from my flight responses by engaging the brain a little more. By drowning out the vagus nerve by encouraging oxygen to my creative side or the logical side of my brain. Both of which would help formulate better solutions than the vagus nerve and its fear of abandonment or disapproval. Things like further encouraging me to write. I will likely have over 12000 characters here by the time I am done- So I am definitely engaging my logic and creativity- and you know what- I feel good.
Music vs disconnection.
The final exercise I was given this week was to try and relate music to helping me heal. The biggest fear I have at the minute is hitting disconnection again- where I can't feel anything- where I am escaping from the pain but also the healing. It can disrupt me for a whole week easily. The book that my counsellor recommended mentions briefly in chapter 7 about how music can help. If you develop a playlist for each level on the ladder I talked about last week- Disconnection, High level anxiety and low level anxiety- they can partner with your other exercises to help you climb. By listening to music that evokes emotion in you- even upset and crying- you can draw yourself out of disconnection as it is helping you feel, even though that feeling may be sadness. It may be then that you move to more upbeat playlist that you can sing or dance to. Once you are singing or dancing you are increasing your oxygen levels which helps your brain recover from fear by processing logically past it with the revitalised frontal cortex.
So. A pretty fun filled hour of my day to say the least. When the session finished I removed my AirPods to the sounds of raspy dry relentless coughing- I really hope Bee doesn't have Covid. We ordered a self test kit which will be delivered tomorrow and all three of us went to bed at a reasonable time feeling pretty under the weather. Mainly Bee though, she sounds really bloomin ill.