ADHD and the Stress Response of Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Episode 77

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As ADHD people, we pay most attention to the the things that generate the biggest signals. This week on the Translating ADHD podcast, Cam and Shelly continue the conversation by discussing negative big signals.

We discuss how negative big signals often produce a stress response our ADHD clients. We then look at examples of each type of stress response: Fight, Flight, and Freeze.

Cam and Shelly then share how clients were able to use awareness as a tool to begin to disrupt this type of stress response before it happens by noticing and naming the negative signal which creates an opportunity for a different outcome.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: [00:00:00] Hi, I’m Shelly. (And I’m Cam.) And this is the Translating ADHD podcast. This week, we are going to continue our conversation on ADHD and our signal-based attention system. And we’re going to turn our attention toward negative signals and the stress response that happens for those of us with ADHD when we have those negative signals.

So this is your fight, flight, or freeze. And today our emphasis is going to be on building awareness there. Noticing when you’re having a stress response, identifying what’s happening for you, even if the outcome is good, even if that stress response allows you to kick into gear and meet a deadline, it still has a cost.

And then next week, we’re going to talk about a model that you can use in order to have a different experience with that stress response, building on that awareness. Cam, where do you want to dig in to negative signals and the corresponding stress responses?

Cam: [00:01:20] So we’re, we’re cooking in the kitchen here.

And someone was like, “Oh, this is great signal based attention system”, kind of ran with a little bit. I was like, Hey, just slow down, brother. Just wait a second. We’re just baking here. It feels like that we’re onto something really important. So last week we tethered hyper-focus to this big signal attention system.

I’m kind of, I’m getting into this big signal area because it’s really fascinating to me. So today we’re going to talk about kind of like the negative signals. Next week we’ll talk about how to address those. And then the week after we’re going to look at those big positive signals. Cause we can get drawn into those too.

So here it’s about the negative signal and the stress response or activating that fight flight center. As you said those three scenarios, we’ll, we’ll fight, we’ll freeze or we’ll fly away. And we’ll give examples of each of those.

But I want to go back to last week, briefly, humans are going to do what they need to do to get things done. So we all have stuff to do. We’re going to use what we have, and if we’re successful with that, we’re going to play value on that. So that’s back to the ARC pony. And accessing that adrenaline response cycle, which in a way is a stress response. And we’re going to ride that pony, but that pony has limitations.

So we also said that the reason why we use the arc pony or the stress response is because above the lunch counter, this inability to prioritize, the inability to see things beyond the immediate or most urgent. To map out and delay gratification. And finally, it’s that activation switch the ability to activate for task.

So what we’ve done is we’ve done this in a brilliant, in a way we’ve accessed this emotional part of the brain, the stress response to serve as a prioritizer and an activator. But then what happens is we’re prone to really just paying attention to the biggest signals. So it’s the biggest signals come over, both positive and negative.

We have these responses to them. Well, there’s lots of things out there that are more nuanced and maybe not so intense. So this whole thing started with when we were looking at that interest based nervous system and it’s like, yeah, okay. We’re wired for what we’re interested in, but we’re also wired for what we’re not interested in.

It’s more than that. And so Shelly and I are thinking that if we start to understand, own, and translate this whole kind of this big signal landscape, we talked about amusement parks and rift zones down in the Valley. Then we can really start to make better choices to start without awareness, make better choices, and then find nuanced tools to be successful in those things that are not always the most exhilarating, most exciting, most scary and frightening.

Shelly: [00:04:28] Cam I’d like to jump right in with a client example that instantly came to mind when we decided we were going to do this topic. Is that okay?

Cam: [00:04:39] Yeah.

Shelly: [00:04:40] So this is in the area of freeze. This client and I had been doing work for a few months on being more successful at work. She’s very good at what she does.

It’s a high demand job. But some of the administrative tasks that are required of her are difficult for her, and had caused problems in the past were starting to cause her problems in her current role. There was lots of opportunity there. She wasn’t in immediate danger of losing her job or anything of that nature.

So she arrived to a coaching session and she has all the words way down in the limbic for the first time in many coaching calls. I checked in on that. What’s going on here? What happened this week? What changed? What shifted that you no longer believe that you can create change here? So she started to articulate and here’s what she realized.

Her husband is a homemaker and that is by their choice. So they only have one income. And when she starts to struggle at work, he is there to support. We actually did a couple of sessions with both of them in session to talk about what that support might look like. So I knew the husband pretty well. But he occasionally goes to this place of catastrophizing.

And this is the cutest catastrophizing ever, by the way, I love this example. For him. It’s “what about the dog?” And here’s the thought process. If you wife lose your job? We’re going to have to move to a different apartment and it’s going to be smaller and crappier, and they’re not going to allow dogs. So what about the dog?

When he starts to catastrophize like that, it has an impact on my client. It creates this massive, massive negative signal because she feels like she has to take care of that problem. What about the dog? And she has to take care of it right now. So out the window goes this process of slow change over time.

She is now feeling like I have to solve this big problem immediately. And it seems so big and so massive, she freezes. So just articulating that out and recognizing the pattern of what about the dog, the impact it has on the dynamic of their relationship. When otherwise her husband is her number one supporter, and he does  a lot to support her in her career.

Being able to name it and notice it together was an important part of having a different experience there.

Cam: [00:07:23] I got a question though, with your client, how does freeze actually manifest? Like what is she actually doing and not doing when she’s in that frozen place? Cause I think helping our listeners kind of identify how does freeze show up for her?

Shelly: [00:07:39] That’s a great question. So free shows up in not doing our coaching actions, in not carrying forward the practices that we’ve developed over time. It’s like a regression, almost. She describes it like being an intern again in her field. She goes all the way down to this place where she feels like she doesn’t know anything and isn’t capable of anything.

And so all of the supportive habits, routines, structures, they seemingly vanish. Now the cool thing about coaching and doing the work that we advocate for on this show is, we have a space together to access that card catalog and remind her what she knows

Cam: [00:08:27] By the way, REBEL: R Remember to Remind the Brain there.

Shelly: [00:08:31] Yeah! Remind her of what she knows. Notice what supportive things were absent in this time, and do our work around that. But in that freeze moment, she feels very acutely, even though it’s not true, that she has gone all the way back to that intern state, where she knows nothing, she’s perpetually overwhelmed and she feels incapable of being successful.

Cam: [00:08:57] So last week you spoke about, or we brought up the state of overwhelm, right? I think you brought it up in the sense of moving from a manageable house to a bigger house. And you brought in that lovely information around like, When people come to us, it’s sort of bumping into this complexity issue. They’re bumping into this loftiness  issue in the sense of what they’re trying to achieve is more. And so overwhelmed with something that’s so understated in the ADHD lexicon.

You just don’t see it. I mean, starting to see a little bit of it, but overwhelm in the sense of those signals start to come faster and faster. What about the dog triggers? It’s not just about the dog. It’s world collapsing. I’m just thinking about another client, my own client, who, if there is a engaging with his spouse and they get into an argument, it’s like his whole foundation.

We talk about building foundations and facades, and that foundation of what they’ve been building on, it’s like it’s built in sand and it just goes away. And that’s that contextual processor, we’re tethered to all these different things that make sense. And then this thing just disrupts that whole thing.

It’s almost like a domino effect or chain reaction. All these tethers get snip, snip, snip snip, snip, snip, and then we’re just floating and back to not knowing. Love that, back to the intern back to not knowing back to that really conscious of your incompetence. And then what do you do? You freeze. The key thing that happened there was she engaged with you in that coaching call to pick up the phone, to get on the zoom, whatever, to start and just trust.

Okay. Let’s get in here and start to reconnect the tethers. What do we know to be true? I think a big thing for ADHD is this again, that stress response it’s designed to address real threats. And in our brain, what we do is construct these contrived, or we froth up these threats that are not necessarily real.

Shelly: [00:11:03] Cam, I love what you just said about my clients showing up. Whenever I have a client in a difficult position like this, when they’re in the limbic, when they feel like they’re not making progress, when their old limiting beliefs are coming back to surface. The very first thing I do is champion them for showing up to coaching anyway, because that right there is already having a different experience.

She’s having her experience of freeze. That’s familiar, but there’s a new element here. She showed up to coaching anyway. So listeners, when we talk about awareness, if you’re experiencing something like this, if you are in the valleys, if you are in fight, flight, or freeze and you don’t know how to get out, if you are under crushing, overwhelmed, that’s okay.

Just keep showing up with us. Just keep showing up. That alone is a different experience that you can start to build on. And if you keep showing up, I promise you, you will have more different experiences over time.

Cam: [00:12:19] And next week, when we talk about what you can do about it, it’s pulling in understand, own, translate. When you show up, develop those keen observer skills, and start to articulate your experience it will live differently. So she help with us identifying resources and showing up with those resources to be able to articulate to a friend, to a coach, to your therapist, to a family member, it lives differently.

And this is that second E of REBEL of Exposure to New and Different Experiences.

Shelly: [00:12:54] Exactly. And my client that we talked about last week, who was able to message me when he was stuck. Different experience. It wasn’t about the ensuing conversation we had. It was about that opening. That opening created by him reaching out is what allowed him to have a different experience.

So, Cam, I want to look at the other side of freeze, which is fight. And I know you have a good client example for this one. I can’t wait to hear it.

Cam: [00:13:24] Right. Remember it’s sort of like, yeah, I taught ninth grade physical science and physics, but this idea of like kind of charged particles, it’s just sort of basic physics and fundamental laws of science that if there’s a big charge, right, we’re either drawn to it or repelled by it. And so these three instances to see if they’re playing out for you, what we do is we can’t ignore these big signals. So letting that be, but developing an awareness, opening your eyes to it and noticing what happens in the presence of these big signals, be them positive or negative.

So we’re going to go to positive in a couple of weeks, but just again, with this negative, we can be drawn to that too. This is an example of a CEO, running a company, a consulting firm and real fast brain. Super fast brain. Light years ahead of her people thinking about what they can do and trying to get to the issue of the day.

What she would do is really search for the problem of the day. So what she would do is sort of this crouching panther in wait. She would get up and have her cup of coffee and sitting in her house would start to cruise through reviewing emails of her leadership team. And she would relay this to me. It’s like, “I am looking for drama because nothing else can activate me”.

So back to that whole idea of, we use what we have. And the thing that we don’t have is the ability to prioritize, and the ability to activate for task. So both big brain and fast brain. Fast brain we’re on our way. And it’s about being able to change course come to let’s address this. So her not so great coping strategy was kind of to lie in, wait, and sort of find something and then just like catch her poor people off guard, you know, just like jump in. And, you know, it was, is this like melee or fight and all this stuff’s going on. And she’s just focused on the biggest signal of here’s a problem. Let’s fix it. Let’s fix it yesterday people. And she has no awareness whatsoever of all the collateral damage.

Because that focuses so much, she’s got such a hyper-focus moment going on with, “come on people let’s solve this dilemma”. She has no idea of the stress she’s creating in her people around her. And that’s what happens in organizations. I see it all the time. My ADHD leaders who are leading with stress response are just mailing it out to their people.

And the whole organization is kind of all on eggshells. Okay. Don’t want to mess up, how can I not upset this leader? And so it was not until we actually kind of got in there and she was able to have awareness and do her own lunch counter work. Of seeing “wow, a lot of people are calling in sick Cam.

Wonder why? Taking mental health days, because what would it be like for you to show up at work just like where’s the panther, the panther who can fire me? Really on edge.

Shelly: [00:16:45] Cam, I’m really curious how that awareness landed for her, that her employees were calling him sick and taking mental health days because the work environment was that stressful.

Cam: [00:16:58] Yeah. Not just stressful, but it was toxic.

Shelly: [00:17:01] Yeah.

Cam: [00:17:02] And again, this undiagnosed, or she was not sharing with them that she had ADHD. So they’re seeing her as just a pariah, as this ogre. And not understanding that there’s ADHD manifesting in this very unique way. When she did, it was a process of developing awareness and value there.

Fast brainers. They’re not really thinking about emotions, processing emotions. They’re not thinking about empathy. They’re not thinking about other people’s feelings. They need to toughen up. You know what, like why do I hire all these wimps? I need tough people. Not understanding that here, she’s got this kitchen and it’s 140 degrees in her kitchen and they can’t weather that.

But starting to sort of again, see this cause and effect that it repeating itself, people coming and going and not staying, she started to sort of see, “Oh, what’s my part?” and again, this is a really interesting and a unique way that ADHD shows up is we’re so externally wired, we’re not really considering our own signal.

What kind of charge are we giving off: positive or negative? We’re just focused on the energy, the opportunity, the entrepreneurs pounce. We’ve got to pounce people. We got to react. We got to respond. Customer’s always right. All the time. Vigilant. And that, that heightened sense. It’s just living out of that stress response and ARC all the time.

People couldn’t get down from that energy level. And then start again over on Monday morning. But. As she pieced this together and recognize like, wow, I’m playing a part here. It’s not really over the longterm. It’s not moving my agenda forward. And back to your client with going back to intern. It’s like recognizing weight, those things that we’re doing in coaching or longterm is looking beyond today and tethering our bigger vision of what we want to do back to, how do I show up today and how do I activate for tasks other than the biggest signal I’ve got one more, we’ve got to look at the fleeand I can do that pretty quickly.

Shelly: [00:19:22] Before you do, I want to go back to the top of the episode where you talked about what big negative signals do. They either attract us strongly, which is your client just diving in claws out teeth gnashing, diving straight into the mess, or they repel us, which was my client. She froze, she felt small. She went all the way back to the intern state of mind and the belief that she is not capable of being successful.

So listeners pay attention to not just the negative signals that repel you and put you in freeze. But what are the ones that kick you into action? The way that Cam’s client is kicked into action way that’s not serving you. In a way that is causing crashes on the other side of adrenaline and in a way that may be harming your reputation or how others perceive you.

Cam: [00:20:28] And as we’re talking about this, you know, so in a coaching class that I’m teaching right now, we’re looking at belief systems. And as people are coming for coaching, they’re coming to create change. And as you create change, it’s really not possible to create change without adjusting a belief system. So over these years, right, my client, who’s the crouching panther with gnashing teeth, she has a certain value system. This is what I value and you tough people. We need to be responsive. And that can be kind of scary to kind of get to this place in between place. Oh, as you realize, Whoa, the limitations of that and developing other mechanisms other than that ARC pony or that stress response to get things done.

And we have to start to question our belief system and that’s a whole nother scary thing, right? Whoa, this is rocking my world. Anyone out there like, Whoa, Whoa, Whoa guys. You’re like turning my world and what I value upside down. As you listen to us at 1.5 speed. You fast brainers. And that’s okay.

Like this is growth. This is change to allow for Expand the Mind, E of REBEL. And just to go back to people are like keeping track, like, okay, there’s three situations and like what’s going on there. So yeah. Getting drawn into that negative signal, I would say that freeze and flee are both kind of repelled.

Right? Cause it’s not going toward it. Definitely. It’s kind of like, there it is. And uh, I’m going to keep my distance from it. I’m not going to address it. It’s an avoidant behavior that freeze. And they just sort of again, stop. Stop everything. If I can sort of stop the world, you know, maybe things will be okay. Well, that’s not possible.

So the flee example, I’m just going to go back and you know do it quickly because I’m very familiar with this is that when I started teaching and I got in over my head quickly around trying to manage so many incoming signals. What did I do? I started to self-select the biggest signals. And so the biggest signal for me was it was this outside sampling.

And then this internal stamping of meaning. This negative self-talk, “I’m not doing this right”. I’m not doing this right. I’m seeing all these other people kind of breezing through their day, not breaking a sweat. And I’m like that duck, you know, is trying to paddle madly underneath the surface and not understanding why, why, how do they make it seem so simple?

So I’m not doing this right. I must not be doing this right. And so what do they know? And that whole imposter syndrome, the imposter syndrome, rejection sensitive dysphoria spikes for me. And then in that, that big negative signal I flee. I run away. I don’t address it. I just go into my own space and just try to paddle harder.

I don’t reach out to people and discuss these feelings and emotions. I know I have ADHD. I just got diagnosed. But I don’t know this is ADHD because this is in the emotional center. And back then in 1997, there was nothing about ADHD and emotions. Nothing about that. So I would just run away from that thought and not be with it.

I couldn’t comprehend that. So I just ran. Oh my God. And again, we, again, there’s a, there’s an episode here about me and my relationships in college, Shelly. Woo! Fleeing like crazy.

Shelly: [00:24:15] Way back, and I don’t know which episode it was, but it was probably one of the first 10. We said that if we ever got to episode 200, we would talk about some of our ADHD behaviors in terms of stories, because you were talking about cut and run Cam in terms of relationships that I was talking about the Oh, 15 to 20 jobs I had between the age of 18 and 21. So we did make a commitment there.

Cam: [00:24:46] You’re not supposed to remember details, shelly. Why do you remember that one? I got time. I have, I have 124 episodes to figure out my stuff before we get to that 200.

Shelly: [00:24:59] So listeners the opportunity this week is around awareness.

And this is the point where I would normally go into the outro. The things that you’ve heard over and over again. And I know most of you don’t listen to that. And by the way, you’re missing some great bloopers, if you don’t listen all the way to the end. But I want to let you know, before you too, now that transcripts are now available for every episode of Translating ADHD, starting with episode 74.

So you can visit the website, click on the episode. And at the bottom of the page, a full transcript of the episode is available for you. We are also working on transcribing older episodes. We will keep you updated as that process goes. And now we’ll get to the regular outro.

So if you like what we’re doing here on the show, the number one way you can help us out is to leave a review where you listen. You can also financially support the show by becoming a patron. Visit the website, Click on the Patreon link in the upper right-hand corner. And for $5 a month, not only are you supporting the show and our efforts here, you are also granted access to our Discord community, where our listeners are working together to do their own, understand, own, and translate work.

So until next week I’m Shelly (and I’m Cam) and this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening!

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