“The Fire Drill”: A Coping Technique for Tempers, Triggers, and Big Feelings

“The Fire Drill”: A Coping Technique for Tempers, Triggers, and Big Feelings July 10, 2019

This week I am sharing a blog written by Lisa Butterworth, a provider at Symmetry Solutions.


Today’s guest post is written by Lisa Butterworth.  Opinions shared on guest posts may not completely reflect the positions of the blog’s author. 

Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University and received two undergraduate degrees in Special Education and History from Utah State University.

 Lisa has been passionate in working towards women’s issues for over a decade and is dedicated to her career in helping individuals, couples and families in their goals towards mental health, healthy relationships and self-actualization as a provider at Symmetry SolutionsShe is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group. 

One of the big reasons we practice fire drills is because one of our normal human responses to loud noises is to freeze. This response is adaptive in some contexts, but if the loud noise is trying to tell you to get out because there is a fire — freezing can be deadly. That is why we practice the response of standing up and exiting while listening to a loud noise. When our brain goes into panic mode, like when we see a snake or hear a loud unexpected noise — our cognitive processes change drastically.

We don’t choose our response the same way we choose what we want for dinner. Our primitive brain takes over, our heart rate goes up, our stomach sinks and we might feel a sudden urge to run, freeze, cry, fight or pee. Some of us experience tingling hands and feet, dizziness, or a sense of being disconnected from our body. All of these are clues that our sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, freeze) has clicked on. When this happens we are no longer able to think clearly, we lose a lot of IQ points and we may say or do things we later regret or feel embarrassed. 

This physical response doesn’t require our actual life be in danger as it would be with a tiger or a gun. We can respond this way to social rejection, our mom being really mean, a scary story or a stick that looks like a snake. Again this is a physical process, our body is being flooded with stress hormones and as long as adrenaline and cortisol are pumping through our veins, we will have foggy brains and have to rely on habits (things we already know how to do) because we literally cannot think straight. At this point our frontal cortex is shut off and our logic abilities fly out the window, we cannot make wise decisions about how to respond to the threat. When the threat is a tiger the response is straight forward, fight, flight, or freeze pretty much sums it up. When the threat is our boss giving us difficult feedback, none of these options are necessarily in line with our best selves and our values or in our best interests. For a fire drill to be effective, the map and plan has to be drawn up before the emergency, and then we have to practice the plan, with our bodies, so that our bodies know what to do, even if our brain is shut off.

Step one in your fire drill is to tune up and tune into your fire alarm system. When a tiger walks in the room you don’t need an alarm, the tiger is the alarm, but when we are responding to social rejection or vague insults, the triggers can be more mysterious. All the symptoms I described can serve as your fire alarm, but that requires that we learn to pay attention to the messages coming from our bodies. Those of us who need a fire alarm were probably taught at our mother’s knee to ignore our bodies and all the messages coming from them, so this first step is neither easy nor will it be effective over night.

To read the rest of this blog please visit Symmetry Solutions

Natasha Helfer Parker, LCMFT, CST can be reached at natashaparker.org and runs an online practice, Symmetry Solutions, which focuses on helping families and individuals with faith concerns, sexuality and mental health. She hosts the Mormon Mental Health and Mormon Sex Info Podcasts, is the current past president of the Mormon Mental Health Association and runs a sex education program, Sex Talk with Natasha. She has over 20 years of experience working with primarily an LDS/Mormon clientele.

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