When we find ourselves embattled, either viscerally aggressive or frozen, there is always an underlying process of anxiety occurring in our neural and limbic systems. The “fight or flight” mechanism that often spirals us beyond the limit of reason and self-control has immediate effects in our neurochemical and hormonal processes.
We become “stressed out” for many different reasons and in many different ways. Escalating behavior is integrally related to our internal experience of anxiety. Understanding this is the fundamental key to understanding how to respond, whether as parents, spouses, or friends, to these behaviors in those we love.
The process of anxiety, of what we all go through in moments of such “fight or flight,” can be broken down into four parts:
1. Rising Anxiety: indicated by any change in normal behavior
2. Defensiveness: beginning of belligerence and of the loss of rationality
3. Acting Out: beginning of acting out behavior and of a near-total loss of rationality
4. Tension Reduction: decrease in physical and emotional issues
The most ideal way for anxiety to be managed is called self-soothing. In the best of situations, we learn to creatively self-soothe in ways that are constructive and do not result in self-destructive behavior or behavior that places undue emotional distance between us and potentially supportive people in our lives.
Yet, because we are not always able to self-soothe, sometimes we need others to offer support. Perhaps we regularly experienced aggression or isolation from caregivers as a young child. Perhaps we have experienced a particularly traumatic event in our lives that we have yet to grieve or experience some form of resolution. Or perhaps we are presently in the midst of an extraordinarily tumultuous time or relationship.
Finally, we may simply have learned or in some way be predisposed toward a wide emotional range. Whatever the cause, the most effective approaches to offering support to a person who is volatile or manifesting some kind of emotional distress are ones that are sensitive to what they are experiencing in that moment.Let’s start with what I’m going to call “typical anxiety.”
If there were an “anxiety meter” from 1-10, I’d say “typical” is a one, maybe sometimes a two, on this “meter.” We all have low levels of neurochemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine flowing in our brains and low levels of hormones like cortisol and oxytocin in our blood that help us function by feeling things that aid us in our social-relational world. It is critical to understand that both what is being felt and experienced as well as what is being observed has neurophysiological and hormonal undercurrents.
Here, I provide some insights into the processes of escalation and de-escalation and tips for responding that are going to be maximally effective and most likely to be well received. These insights are primarily, here forward, applicable to parents with children and teens who display explosive emotions and behaviors. However, the very same principles may well be applied in many other relationships and spheres of life.
1. Rising Anxiety: When we notice our child or adolescent beginning to show signs of frustration, the most effective approach is supportive and nonreactive. At this point, behavior may begin showing some slight deviations from what is acceptable or normal. If we can notice feeling nervous, antsy, or irritated at a two, three, or four on the anxiety meter, then we may likely be able to independently self-soothe.
With others, especially our kids, our best hope approach at this point is to notice their anxiety and to offer support without being too rigid, directive, or physical. Sometimes options for self-soothing need to be facilitated in some form of set time, space, and activity. It is important that this is done with minimal intervention and provided alongside expressions of empathy and availability.
2. Defensiveness: When anxiety has reached what I’m going to call a five or six, we begin to lose our ability to reason and be clear-headed to the same extent that we are feeling this nervous energy inside of us. So, if we are half-way up the anxiety scale, consider that we have also moved half-way down the scale of reason.
In the early stages of anxiety (“rising anxiety”), one of the most effective responses is to assist supportively and nonreactively to allow a process of self-soothing. In this second stage, it may be helpful to offer a bit of clear-headed perspective, which a defensive individual may not otherwise be able to come to very well themselves at this point.
If this is done, it is best done while remaining in a nonreactive nonjudgmental posture. During this time it may also be helpful to become more directive. Directing includes communicating clear limits, offering clear choices, and clarifying consequences.
3. Acting Out: At this point, you are beginning to see not just some degree of loss in rationality but an almost absolute and total loss. This is when you see physical acting out in its varying forms. The belligerence at this point doesn’t just feel like they are testing your authority but that they are wholeheartedly defying it. This is when we arrive at a seven, eight, or nine on the anxiety meter. Remember, then, the level of reason, likewise, may be down to a two or three!
The most effective approach to this behavior requires remaining firm but nonaggressive. In some cases, rarely as parents but more often in juvenile institutions and facilities of incarceration, it may be that even nonviolent physical interventions are appropriate, such as those taught by the Crisis Prevention Institute (http://www.crisisprevention.com/). Sometimes such interventions are also utilized by those who work with children and teens diagnosed on the autistic spectrum.
4. Tension Reduction: When a person reaches the pinnacle of where their anxiety trajectory was propelling them, they begin to decompress and experience some downer emotions (as opposed to emotional overstimulation, which is also called “flooding”). Now that the flood has dissipated, there may be crying and other compensatory behaviors. After such flooding, our neurophysiological system responds in ways that help a person cool back down, so to speak. They are experiencing a kind of catharsis, or release of tension.
During such catharsis, it is not unusual to try desperately to reason things out in ways that justify whatever behavior we have just engaged in. This is because our reason meter is slowly and steadily rising as our anxiety is reaching back down to a safe level. Because of the way our brains work, it is likely at this point that an individual is going to continue in this direction, from volatility toward vulnerability, although perhaps with a few small aftershocks.
It is important and most effective at this point to proceed with empathy and active listening. In addition, especially with our own children, whether young or teen-aged, it may be helpful to engage in a review of what just happened or even provide a firm challenge to the irrational reasoning that aided and abetted their behavior along the way.
It is imminently important that our approach with others in the midst of extreme emotional aggression, panic, or disengagement fit their stage of anxiety. As well, understanding our own underlying processes during these moments is one of the ways that we may gain more capacity for empathy with others as well as a greater degree of resilience amidst our own times of emotional tumult.
Stages of escalation adapted from the CPI model developed by Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Blake Edwards completed initial training and certification in CPI Nonviolent Crisis Intervention in May 2008 and completed a refresher training and re-certification in May 2009.
© Copyright 2010 by Blake Edwards. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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