Navigating the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Stress Response with ADHD

Episode 78

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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 our conversation on big negative signals and the corresponding stress response.

Using a metaphor that Cam first presented at CHADD in 2019, we discuss how ADHD adults can build awareness of our stress responses. We then talk about how we can use that awareness to disrupt the stress response before it happens.

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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 build on last week’s episode, where we discussed big negative signals and the corresponding stress response that those of us with ADHD often experience. This week, our focus is on: How do you have a different experience there with big negative signals?

How can you navigate those without fight, flight, or freeze kicking in? So Cam has a really great metaphor here that he presented at CHADD a couple of years ago. And what we’re going to do is we’re going to look at that metaphor in the context of a real scenario. And that scenario will be the time that I was working with Cam as a coaching client.

I discussed this briefly a couple of episodes ago, how I was deeply and painfully in freeze. So it’s a great example here, and I’m excited to dig in and give you all this metaphor and this tool for evaluating where you are in that stress response and starting to have a different experience. Cam, do you want to kick us off by giving us an overview of the metaphor?

Cam: [00:01:19] Will do Shelly. So the metaphor is a pool and not any pool, but that backyard classic kidney bean shaped pool. And we’ll get to the why it’s kidney shape in a little bit. But last week we were talking about one of your clients and how they would show up. It was showing up and having a different experience.

And so if you’re in a stress response, you’re in that stress response. And showing up as an action, that’s different. So we thought it would be great to bring in this tool that utilizes this pool metaphor, because it helps individuals with ADHD. It gives them a few steps before the ability to show up, because that’s making an action that you want to make, like reach out to my coach or articulate what’s going on.

To give language to this and kind of reach for a pool noodle in that pool. So in the last three years, I’ve presented four presentations at CHADD and two of those had been with Tamar Rosier. And both of them were on managing the emotional brain. It’s just recently, we’re seeing this connection between ADHD and emotional regulation.

Tony Rostain at University of Pennsylvania. Someone is doing some really important work here. So there we are in Philadelphia, we’re presenting on basically knowing your pool and shifting the signal. And so we discussed this because it’s that awareness piece, like going back to Mount Rainier and knowing where you are, is so important with ADHD.

What Valley are you going into? Where am I in association with my card catalog or that road up to the lunch counter? Orienting to the dilemma. So this is the tool that we use and has these three areas of just awareness of what’s happening. And getting eventually to find a pool noodle so you find that stroke and get to a mobility state, an action state.

But there’s an important middle state that we’re going to share today that a lot of people are not seeing as an option. What happens when you fall into a pool, you see a kid fall into a pool. It doesn’t quite have their swim stroke. It’s a panic. We talked about that last week. Thrashing about. So what we try to do is kind of thrash our way out of that situation. That’s what happens in stress.

It’s so hard to make informed choices from that place. So that’s, we’re going to talk about today. Let’s go ahead and bring in your story and we’ll kind of lay out the model and the metaphor along with your story and coming to coaching.

Shelly: [00:04:12] So I want to give a brief overview of where I was at overall at this period of time.

I’ve talked about this before, so I’m just going to give the bullet points here. In November of 2014, I saw Dr. Russell Barkley speak at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization’s conference. It was that presentation that led me to believe that it was likely that I had undiagnosed ADHD.

At this time, my now ex husband and I had just moved into a new house that was three times the size of our previous house. And I was really struggling to get traction. I was going through what at the time I believed was a very serious bout of seasonal depression of something that I had experienced with before. And like years past, I reached out to my resource there in my therapist, but I wasn’t getting any movement.

The therapy wasn’t working for me in the ways that it had worked before, around this subject. So in January of 2015, I pursued an ADHD diagnosis, realizing that I know something new now about myself that I didn’t know before. Let’s see if this is actually what’s going on. And if so, let’s maybe try to approach it from this angle.

 Because I was already in coach training. I was already studying ADHD coaching. So I kind of had a leg ,up as you do listeners by listening to this show, and understanding what coaching can potentially do for an ADHD person. So I decided to practice what I preach. I went and got the diagnosis by the way, was expecting the psychiatrist to tell me that I didn’t have ADHD and that it was all in my head because I work with too many people with ADHD.

Hahahaha. Obviously that’s not what happened. Got my diagnosis. And shortly thereafter reached out to Cam for coaching.

Cam: [00:05:57] Yeah. So then what was the motivation for coaching for you? We talk about that people don’t come for coaching necessarily. They’re coming to address a pain point. What was the pain point that you were wanting to address?

Shelly: [00:06:09] At the time that I engaged with you, Cam, I was on the couch. That’s how I articulated it to you then. That’s how I articulate it to people now, because that was the experience. I likely would not have gotten out of bed most days if I didn’t have a three-year-old that I needed to look after. But I would get up, move from the bed to the couch without getting out of my pajamas and there I would stay except for the things that I absolutely had to do to take care of the tiny human in my care.

So she’s on the couch. My business was stagnated. The progress of moving and settling into the house was at a dead stop. And I couldn’t get a foothold in any direction. I felt like it didn’t only feel like I had no energy. It felt like I had negative energy, like this negative energy that just sucked me down onto the couch. And it was painful to even do the most basic of tasks.

Cam: [00:07:06] So that was your stress response of basically freezing there.

Shelly: [00:07:11] Yeah.

Cam: [00:07:12] Cause we talked about last week. I imagine that there’s listeners out there, like, wait, this sounds like depression. It sounds like depression. Right? It’s just so overwhelming. You can’t get off the sofa. So what had you thinking? No, this is really ADHD. This is not depression, or at least I have to address the ADHD. But what had you think ADHD versus depression?

Shelly: [00:07:36] So I do you have bouts of seasonal mood disorders. I definitely am in a more depressed state in the winter. That’s a normal state of being for me even today. Although today it’s very different than it was years ago.

So I had worked with a therapist for several years in the winter. I would engage with him if and when I saw the seasonal depression setting in, and it was fruitful work for a time. This time was different because this time, the quote unquote depression was much heavier and much more paralyzing.

And I was in a complete state of overwhelm. I didn’t know which way was up. And I had not been in this place ever as far as I could recall. Yeah. I had clients that wanted to work with me in my organizing business that I wasn’t responding to. I wasn’t taking care of my personal hygiene. I wasn’t taking care of anything.

It’s like knowing what I knew about ADHD. It’s like maybe I know that approaching it from the therapy angle only got me this far, you know, maybe it’s time to consider that there’s a way to approach this differently by looking at ADHD for the first time, because I’ve got this brand new diagnosis.

Cam: [00:08:57] Yeah. Um, as, as you’re talking, I’m recalling our initial conversations. By the way, this is just a wonderful example of the big signal. The big negative signal, it can kind of your own response to that. The signals come and come and come, and our system of navigating and prioritizing and executing, it just breaks down.

So you go into this overwhelmed state. And overwhelmed, we talk about it on the show of this, where the prefrontal cortex just basically shuts down. So we’re back in our limbic system. We’re back in that fight flight freeze place of the brain, and it works to a degree, but then even in that mode, we can reach this place of pure survival brain.

Like you said, you weren’t taking care of yourself, your own needs, weren’t taken care of inquiries about organizing. So that overwhelming, just weight of that darkness that occurs. It’s a different kind of darkness than depression.

I talk about being in a life raft upside down in the Atlantic underwater disoriented, and not sure where to go. You use that example of being in the middle of a lake and being able to take that step on that stepping stone. It’s such a different place. That’s a place of choice and power. This is a place of feeling so disempowered, having no agency and no way of seeing a way out so that overwhelmed.

But you did reach out. And I recall it was like: “this ADHD is kicking my ass”. I have to figure this out. I need a coach to help me figure this out because I’m running up against this thing. And that’s an impetus for so many people who come to ADHD coaching. The one thing that we have is it’s a stubbornness or resilience or tenacity, this ability to tolerate very difficult situations.

But even we have our limits. When you reach that limit, it just, everything goes offline. That’s showing up right there is reaching out to a resource, Shelly.

Shelly: [00:11:15] Yeah. And you know, as we’re talking about this, I want to take half a step back and acknowledge that there was denial going on here too. So mixed in with the season and how it affects me and the life circumstances that were overwhelming and just so happening to be at that conference and see Dr. Barkley speak. I was in full-blown denial. I can’t have ADHD. That’s counter to what my plans in life are. I don’t want to believe it.

I went to the psychiatrist. I joked about this a second ago, but I went to the psychiatrist so that he could tell me that I didn’t have ADHD and I could move on. And when he told me that I did, I didn’t know what to do with that.

And you’re right. I reached out for a resource. I threw a lifeline at you. And I want to give some context here, listeners, because this is not easy to do for anyone. And I again, had a bit of a leg up here. Cam is a coach that I already knew because he was a trainer in several courses that I had taken. So I wasn’t starting from zero.

I was starting from someone that I knew and had a bit of a relationship with. But even then, sitting down and firing off that contact form email was all the energy I had. That was at that time asking for support from you was all the farther I was capable of taking it.

And so Cam I think it would be interesting if you kind of take this place that we’re in right now and put us in the pool or put me in the pool rather. You’re not, you’re not in the pool, I’m in the pool, but put me in the pool and describe it with the pool metaphor, what that would look or feel like.

Cam: [00:12:58] So back to that kidney bean shaped pool. On the profile of it, it looks like a brain. And there’s the deep end where the limbic is the fight flight area.

And so when we’re triggered, when we reach a state of overwhelm, when we have a stress response in are are unable to really move out of that place, we plunge into the deep end. We plunge into the deep end of the pool, deep into our limbic. The amygdala is firing. And again, it is letting us know, Hey, this is life or death.

You need to fight. You need to step up. And what we do is we can have that fighter to get things done, to prioritize, to activate for task, but we can also, it can come so intensely that we freeze or we flee. And so we’re immobilized in the deep end of the pool. Well, what do you do there? Sort of imagine early experiences with pools.

It doesn’t feel good. Right? We want to get to safety. We want to get to the side of the pool we thrash about. And so what we do in coaching is we talk about the keen observer, the power of observation, the power of orienting to your dilemma. And in this first stage, it’s really orienting to this naming what’s going on.

I recall you coming to terms with the denial, right? Of like, I’m not ready to accept this. And we did an episode on this. When we get a diagnosis, it’s accepting this diagnosis and also letting go of who we’re never going to be. It’s a process. And Oh yeah. Remember we were not always great at processes with our contextual processing.

So that I’m in the pool and just state it. This is where I am. You’re going to be okay. The amygdala is trying to tell you you’re not going to be okay. Get out of this moment. This is an amazing learning place. And to breathe. To use senses. One of the reasons why I do presentations is to learn stuff. When I work with people, when I work with you, I’ve learned so much doing this podcast.

I learned so much when I wrote the book with Casey Moore. I learned so much when I partner with Tamara because she’s got the brain stuff. She’s got the research, I got the coaching. She’s a coach too. But the fascinating thing for me, Shelly was it was like, okay, well what’s language here that we can use to get the person out of this awareness state, to the next phase, which is what we call safety.

I’ll talk about that in a moment. She was like, Cam there’s there’s no language here. I was like, what? Yeah, this is part of the brain. There’s no language. You can’t articulate this. So we had to find a different way to get to this place of safety on the way to the third place of mobility, utilizing the pool noodle, finding your stroke and informed choice.

But back to this place of awareness is just using sensory inputs. Pressing against a doorframe doing pushups, going for a vigorous walk, breathing. But using that sensory input, it quiets down the alarm system and lets us move to the next phase, which is really this distinction of, okay, I can’t control this, but I can handle it.

When your clients show up, they have to get to this place first. Of okay, I don’t have to panic here. I don’t like it. I can’t control it. It’s got control of me, but I can handle it. I’m not going to die. The brain is like:. “You’re going to die. Get the hell outta there. Fight.” Just breathing. I can handle this. And when you get to that safety place, then there’s so much learning.

This is the lunch counter stuff of when those big signals come over the wall and you’re in hyper-focus or maybe you’re in a big stress response. This is the opportunity to connect to causation. This is where the learning is.

Shelly: [00:17:22] Cam, it’s really interesting to reflect back on this period in my life now, with what I know now. Because when I came to coaching, I just wanted you to get me out of the pool and I wanted to be out of the pool yesterday.

So it was deeply uncomfortable for me. I remember. I don’t remember the content of our first few sessions, but I remember being really frustrated. And not frustrated with you, but frustrated with the work that we necessarily had to do in order for me to get to that next place. It’s like, I don’t want to do this stuff.

I don’t want to look here. I don’t want to go into that scary closet. I just want out of the pool. I want to do awareness work around this stuff. I just want to shove it all back in the closet and get back to doing me the way that I’ve always done me. And we’ve talked about how clients come often, because what has worked for them up until this point is no longer working.

I was in that place. What worked for me before it was no longer working. What I wanted you to do is I wanted you to make that work again. Just stand me back up, get me out of the pool so that I can go on my merry way. And I was not expecting the work that we actually did. And it’s so crazy to think about that in hindsight, because now I’m managing my client’s expectations around that every day.

But it was horribly uncomfortable to stay in the pool for however many sessions I was in the pool. But it was so necessary because when we got to that next place, I was ready to have a new experience with this old dilemma, because I knew things about myself that I didn’t know before. I had language for what being in the pool looked like for me, this is Hoth. I had experience with articulating that to you as a safe person who I could use that shorthand with. So I had a new experience there of “I’m going into Hoth”, being able to say that to another person.

Cam: [00:19:32] Yeah. So listeners Hoth is ice planet Hoth from Star Wars and we were working with each other before we did this whole pool thing, Tamara and I, at CHADD. But it’s sort of identifying this place where we freeze, where we have the stress response and what works so well is Shelly would articulate what happens.

What happens is when they close those doors, and they lock the dudes out Han and Luke it’s like, they’re not going to survive out there. But they survive. But closing that door, Shelly would close the door and just go away. Disappear, no signal. Hey Shelly, Shelly, come in. Radio silence. That was pretty good. That was the best one.

Shelly: [00:20:25] Yeah. And so just by engaging with you, by asking for coaching that was already having a new experience. And continuing to show up, even though I was really uncomfortable with where we were looking and the conversations we were having was another act of having a new experience.

Articulating to you for the first time “Cam I’m in Hoth and the doors are closing, help”, having a new experience. And so this all builds over time. My clients who listened to the podcast ask me “do you still have a Hoth or have a pool?” I do, but it doesn’t have the power over me that it once did because I’ve done my own work there and I’ve done it over years.

So most of the time now I am a self resource there because I can notice and name those voices. I know who they are. I don’t care about what they have to say anymore. They don’t elicit the stress response in me that they used to. So I can pause, be aware of what the self-talk is there, what the story is there and move on.

If I can’t, I have outside resources, I will still text Cam. If I’m going into Hoth. He’s a resource for me there.

Cam: [00:21:45] Yeah. And I’m not your coach, right? We’re not coaching right now. We’re partners. But you’ve identified a resource.

I want to bring in a larger context because I don’t want people to think that all coaches do is this pool management. It’s part of what we do. And again, we’re not doing therapy, we’re just helping people recognize the pool, the power of the pool, and how to maybe, you know, have some pool awareness to walk the edge of the pool and notice when you’re about to fall in.

Now this last weekend I noticed I was walking close to my pool. So it’s having that awareness. And if I do drop in the difference is, you know, years ago, I would just be floating in the deep end. In this stress response and not able to really find that pool noodle to get to that place of safety where it’s like, Oh, I know this. I don’t like it, but I can handle it. And so with coaching, it’s about getting through that process quicker.

That’s resilience. That ability to bounce back quicker. The ability to find resources. People come for coaching. They’re like, I want these results. I’m like, I’ll give you results, but will you invest in resilience and resourcefulness too?

But again, I can’t help, but talk about the bigger context. Even from the get go. When you were on your sofa, we were talking about strength-based coaching. We were talking about positive change. What’s the positive change? And as a coach, I’m thinking even with a person coming where there might be an overwhelm, or I can’t do this, if ADHD is in play, we’ve got that big double door into the stress response place, because that’s where the ARC pony is.

So holding out and holding this place for positive outcomes, positive goals, and accessing strengths, resources, and supportive people and supportive environments and understanding your ADHD and how it shows up. That in doing so then we’re starting to access these other neural pathways, these positive neural pathways around curiosity and vision.

The next year at CHADD Tamara and I did another presentation on cultivating emotional health, which is actually in her new book. It’s coming out in the fall and I’m going to plug at the end of the episode today. Your emotional health or emotional fitness matters. You matter, you all matter with ADHD. And when we’re at the latest and loudest, we often put that at the end of our list. It’s a nuanced signal.

 We’re going to do episodes on all of these things that are nuanced signals, like building relationships. Addressing your own needs. There’s more signals out there than the most intense signals. And with some fine tuning, we can help you find those and create value around those signals.

Shelly: [00:24:57] There is so much more here. We thought this was going to be one episode, kind of like how we thought REBEL was going to be one episode. We’re good at that. So we talked about being in the pool today. Next week, we’ll look at safety and what that place looks like, and we’ll continue to use my experience as a way to dig in there.

Cam, I just want to say a little bit more in terms of where coaches do emotional work and where we do not. So, our work is around helping our clients distinguish. What in the limbic system is: creating a limiting belief? Is telling a story that’s not true? Is pulling in context to inform a way that we think about ourselves that isn’t real?

This is different than actual emotional work that might need to be done. I have had a few clients for whom we bump up against trauma in our work together. When they’re looking back at their lived experience, to bring that into coaching for us to learn from, they’re looking back to a place in a time where there is also trauma. And in that case, my role is to help them determine if there is other work to be done there before we can make forward progress in coaching.

Because that trauma is real, that’s different than the stories and the limiting beliefs and the limiting perspectives that we can create for ourselves in the limbic system. So helping my clients sort of distinguish out what’s trauma and what’s this other stuff? And does trauma need to have some work done on it before we can make forward progress is a really important role for me.

So I just wanted to clarify that distinction a little bit more because the coaching space does want to live. In curiosity. If my clients come in the limbic system, I noticed a name that for them and our goal is to try and shift out of that. But if what’s holding them in the limbic system is real, like trauma, well, that’s a different thing than noticing and naming a limiting belief or limiting perspective and moving on from there.

Cam: [00:26:53] Well said so well said.

Shelly: [00:26:55] So give us Tamara’s book before we wrap.

Cam: [00:26:58] Yeah. So Tamara, she runs the ADHD center of Western Michigan, and she is the current president of ADHD Coaches Organization, which is a really important coaches organization. If you’re a coach out there, you want to be a part of the ACO. And her book that’s coming out in the fall, that’s Your Brain’s Not Broken: Strategies for Navigating Your Emotions and Life with ADHD. And she has a chapter in there on what we did last year at CHADD with cultivating emotional health and the emotional health ladder. So be looking for that in about September.

Shelly: [00:27:32] And that’ll do it for us for today. 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 wherever you listen. I did see that we have a few new ones in the last couple of weeks. So thank you so much. You can also support the show financially by becoming a patron.

Visit the website, translatingadhd.com. Click on the Patreon link in the upper right-hand corner. And for five bucks a month, not only are you supporting the running of the show, you can also join our discord community, where our listeners are working together to do their own understand, own and translate work.

There are also transcripts available for every episode, starting with number 74. Visit the website, translatingadhd.com and click on the episode number. And at the bottom of the show notes, you will find a full transcript. We are going to be working on transcribing older episodes as well. And we’ll keep you posted when we get that started.

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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