Friday, March 2, 2012

Fight or Flight with Parental Confrontation and Contact

Whew. I am generally a calm, cool, and collected person BUT whenever I have a potential confrontation, actual confrontation, or cause of concern related to my parents, my body immediately reacts. I get shaky, I feel sick to my stomach, I get out-of-breath, and my mind runs a million miles an hour. After decades of ...
  • wondering when the next blow-up is going to happen or 
  • what I am going to be falsely accused of next or 
  • what is being fabricated about me now or
  • having my parent(s) confront me with the next "we have to sit down an talk" scenario
... my body is sent into a tail-spin when my parents are discussed relative to me. This 'tail-spin' is fight-or-flight which is defined as the set of processes that occur in the body when it is confronted with some form of physical or mental stress. The nervous system signals for adrenaline and other hormones to be released into the blood which prepare the body either to confront or flee (thus, “fight or flight”). Changes in the body include increased heart rate, dilated pupils of the eye (to improve vision), and increased supply of blood to the muscles (to prepare the body for action).

I can carry on with life for a year (or more) without any situation causing fight-or-flight.  Even as time has passed and even though I am at peace with my past, present, and future, whenever I get a phone call or email from a family member or friend regarding my parents relative to me, my body reacts. With daily life, I am not stressed. I don't have anxiety. I don't panic about situations. I am a very confident, happy, level headed individual. Then, without warning, one of those calls / emails occurs, and I am shaky and nauseated. 

Why would my body react in such a way? In short, my body has been conditioned to respond to this specific stimuli due to lack confidence, trust, and unconditional love from my parent. Note that:
  • If one has confidence in a relationship, fight-or-flight would not occur with confrontation or contact.
  • A relationship based on trust and unconditional love would not elicit the reactions of fight-or-flight when a confrontation arises. 
So, when a relationship is abused by years dysfunction, toxicity, carelessness, and selfishness, trust in the relationship is damaged. Respectively, lack of confidence in the relationship is a result and the  reaction to confrontation is fight-or-flight. Trust is directly correlated with confidence, and when confidence is broken, confrontations and simple contacts are interpreted by the body as immediate danger.

I have had one too many shocking situations with my parents that body's natural reaction to their contacts is fight-or-flight. I don't trust their intentions or even each of them as individuals. Additionally, I don't have confidence that their intentions are unconditional or unselfish. Due to the erosion of this confidence and trust, my body immediately jumps to fight-or-flight with confrontations and simple contacts. For me, the fight-or-flight response resulted from:
  • Years of 'deep sixing' what I witnessed and experienced as a child
  • Years of emotional and verbal abuse including Parental Alienation Syndrome
  • Decades of situations blowing-up in my face at the hands of my parent(s)
  • Decades of stepping on land mines and going through traumatic situations with my parent(s)
  • Decades of walking on eggshells and trying to keep peace with my parents(s)
What's interesting is my MIND (psychological) knows that everything is fine-- that I am safe, my child is safe, my husband is safe. I KNOW that nothing horrible is going to happen to us. However, my BODY (behavior) is set off, like an alarm, and automatically sends adrenaline surging. Our body cannot always tell the difference between real and imagined threat. Therefore, when we interpret a situation as threatening, our body responds as though the situation is dangerous even if it really isn't in reality. Once my body calms down, I have a chuckle as I realize how my body just takes off without me as a result of all I've endured in the past. My body interprets my parents as an immediate danger.

 Does anyone else have this response? How do you cope when these situations arise?

I don't experience this heightened response often, so training myself to not react is challenging. I practice the following in order to eliminate / reduce the fight-or-flight response:
  1. Practicing visualization and having my body not react stress-fully to these random contacts about my parent(s)
  2. Talking out the scenarios with my husband.
  3. Manipulating my breathing by changing the rate at which I breathe, whether I breathe shallowly or deeply, and whether I breathe through my mouth or nose. By manipulating how I breathe, it is possible to slow down and even reverse the fight-or-flight response.
  4. Controlling the level of tension in my muscles. For example, by creating a fist, make the muscles in my arms tighter. What is more difficult, but not impossible, is to make my muscles more relaxed. With practice, I relax not only the muscles in my arms, but muscles in my shoulders, back, jaw, face, and other areas. 


  1. Yes yes yes. I was just thinking about that reaction this morning, and remembering (for the umpteenth time) that quote attributed to Maya Angelou about how people will only remember how you make them feel.

    1. Absolutely yes! I react the same exact way with the thought of even the slightest possibility of potential contact or confrontation with my mother even though we've been estranged for almost 5 years, and not once as she personally reached out to me (though she has done a bunch of weird stuff via other people). Also, I have to try to control bouts of panic when in the grocery store or other public places. I have to practice my "plan" for escaping her over and over in my head in order to calm the paranoia I have of running into her unexpectedly somewhere in public.

  2. I get the same reaction from any contact with my sister. I wonder if it's PTSD?

  3. Maybe u have c-ptsd with the triggers being anything that reminds u of your parents. The tools u suggested are great. I find learning to be mindful and present is enables you to tolerate the discomfort and that urgent feeling of fleeing.Its really helping me.


  4. I experience the much of the same feelings when I think about my "ex-parents". I also believe this is a form of PTSD. Think about it, we lived in a war zone where situations were chaotic and unpredictable. Now when anything brings back that situation, there is an automatic reaction. It's like Pavlov's dog and conditional response, where dogs were trained to salivate when a bell was rung because food was presented. Even when they did not present food and rang the bell, the dogs still salivated. We still react to the situation that is parental abuse. The longer we deal with the stimuli without a hazardous situation, the less of a reaction will ensue.

    Your suggestions for dealing with this reaction is pretty much what I do. Trying to avoid these feeling will just lead to more trouble later. I was wondering do you experience flashbacks or splitting?

    Thank you so much for writing this blog. It is so great to know that I am not alone. Stay strong.


  5. i just wanted to say I am so glad I found your blog. I have a very damaged relationship with my BPD mother and have been doing research on this lately and found your blog. My therapist has opened my eyes to my mom's disorder and it is so helpful to read your posts. I could spend hours (and will) reading your blog. We have soooo much in common. Thanks for opening up to the blog world. You are helping so many and may not realize it!

  6. Thank you so much! I look forward to hearing more from you. All my best to you! :)

  7. yes, I feel like this as well. Just today, I had a realization...
    I have 3 brothers who still have contact with our mother. The older one--begrudgingly. The one just younger than me, who was "the least liked" (I was the most hated--different from the least liked) talks on the phone to mom 3 times a week. I talked to him on the phone this morning and tried to approach this topic of "mom". He became incredibly agitated and upset. It took several minutes for me to realize that he didn't even know he was agitated! When I asked why he was so upset, he denied even being upset. He has "normalized" agitation. The only reason I notice how agitated I get with any reference to mom is because it is so infrequent now. Maybe once every couple of years do I get info about her (and it does in fact make me physically ill--heart pounding, upset stomach, muscle tension, mental preoccupation). But I suppose my younger brother (who I don't have much contact with), who talks with her 3 times a week, doesn't even notice.
    I don't believe my body is "falsely" reacting to a threat. The threat is real and the reaction is appropriate. The job is to minimize the threat! Which entails more than just avoiding her or any mention of her.

  8. "The threat is real and the reaction is appropriate" ... excellent point!

  9. "the threat is real and the reaction is appropriate" is true...but still needs to be managed.

    My mother has the potential to cause me lots of unnecessary damage control. Some of the things she did to me as an adult were so bizarre no one believes me and they think I'm making up a grade B movie plot.

    The cutting off of contact was not mutual--she would rather continue the crazy dance. I have to be on guard, lest she insinuate herself into my life again.

    When my body has this intense reaction, it's a warning. DANGER! I'm not afraid she will say cutting sarcastic things or beat me with the belt anymore. I'm afraid she will continue her pattern of police calling, behind the scenes machinations, manipulation, and all the other stuff so bizarre it takes countless hours and mountains of evidence/proof to convince others its really happening. It's a very real threat. I'll never have any real peace until she dies. My luck, she'll outlive me!

    Ever see the studies of kids of BPD parents that show skyrocketed cortisol levels and other adrenal problems? Its from years and years of living in apprehension, stress, and fear in your formative years. And requires medical treatment.

  10. Interesting tid-bit that I ran across and thought I'd share: "People who suffer childhood trauma may suffer from persistent hyperactivity" in certain regions of the brain, and that the brains of individuals who suffer from PTSD differ from those with depression" Heit et al. 1999 p. 5

  11. "Children raised by borderlines may spend their childhood balanced on the edge of disaster and may suffer from anxiety for the rest of their lives" p 48 Christine Lawson's Understanding the Borderline Mother

  12. I'm reading "understanding the borderline mother" as well. It makes my stomach hurt.

    My mother was primarily a "witch" borderline. Plus, I was the "all bad" kid. Some of the things that she did AFTER I grew up and moved away were worse than when I was a kid.

    I scrutinize myself constantly for signs that I'm like her---and then manage to still somehow overlook when I
    am! I haven't had contact with her for a very long time, but am always scared she is going to crawl out of the woodwork and come after me again. "The threat is real" indeed!

    By the way, peppermint capsules work pretty well for the upset stomach that accompanies "mother exposures".

  13. I definitely agree that I think this is a form of C-PTSD. This has gotten so badly with me that not only do I feel the adrenaline surge and anxiety (of which she used to assure me I was making up) but my heart has actually begun "skipping" - which I've learned is a response to prolonged stress. (Ugh, and it's so terrible; it feels gross. Like swallowing a goldfish!) It skips on a regular basis, now... but becomes more excessively frequent when her nearly constant agitation is turned on me, or she's trying to degrade someone else in conversation to me. BPD being what it is, if I have health issues, she tends to freak... (possibility for abandonment) - and now that this has turned into a complication with my heart - she acknowledges it, but 100% blames me for "over-reacting" to her. (Because she thinks she's a tremendous, loving parent, of course. I'm just a terrible daughter that's vilifying her.) One of the things I think is quite interesting about all of this is the lack of consideration for the unique parent/child relationship. I am a strong willed, independent, successful person - and this is the only person on the planet who can nearly make my heart stop. But she doesn't see why that is; during yelling spells - she feels zero responsibility to curb her outbursts, knowing the physiological difficulty this is creating for me; there is no consideration for the part of me that was interconnected to her, against my will, for all of these years. I think that's such a testament to the low EI, here.

    I wanted to add one more thing:
    I have always had such a highly successful and bright future, on the outside that A)it's made it incredibly difficult for me to settle on an "undiagnosed BPD" label for my mother...because from the outside - my life has always seemed almost "too" good. (And of course she's been telling me she's parent of the year for as long as I can remember.) But on the inside... I've always said that if people knew how hard I worked for it, it wouldn't appear so impressive anymore, lol. Interpersonally, I struggle in ways that I don't think most people will ever understand. My mother's splitting tendencies, for example, were/are DEVASTATING to my ability to be close with other people. So your post (and your and your readers' ability to understand) is very helpful.

  14. And B) I will say something positive. Having to deal with my mother's irrationality has given me a powerful skill that I use for significant advantage in business, these days: I know immediately when someone is skirting blame or manipulating. So I am almost a master in keeping accountability where it belongs. For example: My mother lives out of state and has been pushing for me to come stay with her for a while. After a personal tragedy in which my close friend passed away, I agreed. (Terrible idea.) So.. one day (when she was already frustrated with someone else) I did not want to engage in a degrading conversation she was having -- and she flew into a rage...with much of her usual name calling and degradation now directed at ME. (I think that's common, too.. always needing to be backed up in their negative perspectives.) And because of my calm demeanor throughout the attack (which I MUST maintain, for my heart's sake- and that calmness appears to make her the MOST mad) her tirade escalated and then ended with telling me to get out of her house because of how ungrateful and what a "bitch" I was. She yelled this at me, a couple times - but I've learned not to ruin my life to benefit her rages. Since I did not have my car there, and it would have been a whole ordeal- I calmly responded that if she wanted me out that badly she could call the cops and have them remove me - while explaining to them how "terrible" her daughter is because she didn't want to have a particular conversation. And then I walked away. It was effective, and the last time she ever went to that power play. She never wanted me to leave; she just wanted to me to fear her so I would engage in her reprehensible conversations on command. Additionally, she is sensitive about having a bit of a checkered reputation in the community, already (for being a crazy maker)so I knew that even if she really wanted me out (only in the heat of her momentary rage) she would never sully her image, further, by calling the cops. Another line I use with her frequent rage is "I'm not going to change, because I am not the one having a problem." Which, she clearly detests to no end, but again, serves to point out that her emotional load is not actually my responsibility to untangle unless she is presenting her issue calmly and rationally. I think that Borderlines use fear to control(ironically...similar to corporate America) so if you focus on staying present; not fearful (hard, I know) and actually see, clearly, the (non)validity of their threat - you can pick it apart for the nothing it really was. (In non physical cases.) I think we have to remember that at the end of the day - Borderlines feel powerless. That's why they twist, contort, and fabricate things. If we can stay present - we can expose the powerlessness they are hiding, for the sake of self-preservation at times. Ever seen a speechless Borderline? Lol. I didn't know it was possible, either. But I'm good at ending up there, now. I think Borderlines at fronting, largely. Using intimidation to hide something else. Scary as a kid... but I think the key to getting out from under that is bringing to light what they are hiding. It teaches them not to spew crazy on you when you've already asked them not to. My relationship has improved with my mother.. but ONLY because I have the confidence to put the spotlight on what she doesn't want seen. If she won't stop yelling because it's killing me (my heart) - then I will back her off by turning the light on her powerlessness; perhaps telling her "stop looking for my validation, have a little self esteem.") It's a successful life lesson for maintaining boundaries...but I'm still coming to terms with the fact I ever had to learn it.