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What Happens When it Feels Like the House is on Fire!

Carleen Newsome

Close up photo beautiful amazed she her dark skin lady arms hands chin think over not sure homework diligent student look empty space wearing casual white t-shirt isolated yellow bright backgroundHuman beings are magnificently designed. When we are in a life-threatening situation our body reacts while shutting down our prefrontal cortex where planning, analyzing and problem solving occur. This process allows us to react immediately without wasting time. If, for example, a lion is running towards us in an open field it would be best if we simply reacted by running, hiding or preparing to fight. We would waste valuable time and put our lives in great danger if we stopped to consider whether the lion was really a lion or simply a large house cat. However, this life saving reaction can sometimes work against us in the modern world. Our reactions can get stuck in “the house is on fire” reaction cycle and we respond as if our life is in danger when really it is just a little smoke. We find ourselves over-reacting to comments or criticism, we lash out and harm important relationships, and /or we impulsively make choices that make situations worse.

The most important thing to do in these situations is to first recognize what is happening before we react. What sensations do we feel in our body (tension, heat, flushed, heart racing, etc.) what stories are we telling ourselves (I am not enough, I am being disrespected, no one listens to me, etc.) and what emotions are we beginning to feel (disrespected, fearful, hurt, angry, etc.)

Once we have noticed that we are beginning to feel as if we are in a life-threatening situation, we have several coping skills that can decrease our reaction to the situation. These skills help us lower our bodily reactions which allow us to once again engage our prefrontal cortex to plan, analyze and problem solve. Distraction and Self Soothing Actions are two of these effective coping skills

Distraction: Sometimes the easiest and most effective way to change our response to a situation is to stop thinking about it. Distraction puts our focus somewhere else. We can distract by playing a game, doing a cross word puzzle, focusing on our breath while we breathe, listening to music and/or watching TV to name a few distractions.

Self Soothe: Self soothing helps to calm our physical response by attending to each of our five senses.

Touch: Take a hot bath and/or apply lotion.

Smell: Light a scented candle or apply an essential oil.

Hear: Turn on an uplifting play list or listen to the birds in the backyard.

Taste: Make yourself some hot chocolate or eat one piece of delicious chocolate

See: Look through a travel magazine or draw/color

These skills simply allow us to be more effective in our life by helping us avoid our knee-jerk reaction to overreact. These skills allow us to calm down, think clearly and problem solve so ultimately, we can create a life worth living! These skills and so many more are taught in the Summit DBT skills classes.

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