Fight or flight

NOTE: Pavlov’s Dogs refers to an experiment in which dogs were trained to have a physiological reaction at the mere suggestion of food.

HARLINGEN — “What was that for?”

Teresa looks at David, confused.

“What was what for?”

“The way you’re looking at me,” David snaps.

“The way I’m looking at you? I’m not looking you,” she says.

“You’re looking at me right now, and there it is again the way you’re looking at me,” David says, his voice rising.

“OK, now there it is again,” David said. “You’re doing it again. Grabbing your purse. What are you doing? Leaving?”

“David, I don’t have to take this,” she says, getting out of the car.

“OK, see? I was right,” he says. “Always leaving, and we didn’t even make it out of the drive way.”

He screeches out of the driveway and races into the darkness. And Teresa’s standing there thinking, “What was that?”

It’s often called the fight or flight response, but it’s actually more complicated than that.

Jamie Graham, who teaches the ACE Overcomers Class, remembers bursting into tears when anyone referred to anything personal in her life. That was her physiological reaction to the painful memories that were so vivid in her mind.

She like so many others knows how our past often follows us into our present, hounding us like Pavlov’s Dogs. They set off reminders of a past we’re trying to leave behind. Something as simple as a look in a person’s eyes, the tone of a person’s voice, or the smell of coffee can flip the wrong switches and send a person into a rage, or bring him or her to tears. And then follows the fragmentation of their friendships, their personal lives, and even their professions.

Graham said a great deal of this is connected to the limbic system in the brain. That’s part of her message to those attending the ACE Overcomers Class on Thursdays.

“The limbic, he’s like your super hero,” she said. “He’s the guy that will come to your rescue if your kid’s trapped under the car.”

Obviously, the limbic system can be quite a lifesaver — unless he gets out of control, Graham said. The limbic system can become a problem for those who have endured exceptional stress growing up. That stress can come in the form of constant yelling, beating, or sexual abuse. In the process, the limbic system becomes enlarged and anything it controls becomes more reactive.

Now the limbic system has gone from being your protector to a life wrecker.

“He’s gone from your super hero to the guy that, you’re fine one minute, and then you’re in an outburst, a rage, the next minute, and that’s a lot of people,” she said.

Those who don’t understand the mechanics of this often say “They need to just stop and think about it.”

“That’s easy to say, but you literally can’t stop and think,” she said. “You want to get to that point to where you can stop and think, but you can’t, because your brain is not wired that way. There’s not been any natural process through their brain that says, ‘That was rude. That was mean.’”

ACE Overcomers addresses this problem by teaching people to be “self-aware.”

“You can slowly rebuild those connections,” Graham said. “Finding out what your triggers are, you will slowly build those connections to that right path, and eventually you will get to, ‘Wait a minute. Maybe that’s not what they meant. Or maybe it is.’”

It’s a good way of dodging the Pavlov’s Dogs that may suddenly appear. Because, as long as they’re hanging around, they tend to breed rather rapidly. And each reactive incident can carry the weight of a poisoned arrow picking off friends, lovers, and professional possibilities, filling your Pandora’s Box with painful memories of loss.