I don’t do well with tense situations, particularly if the cause is relationship conflict that includes angry yelling. As far as fight or flight goes, I’m definitely a runner. If there is a clash or argument going on around me, I’m looking for all the available exits. If it’s directed at me, I often just say whatever I think the person wants to hear just to find a conclusion. That’s often how I survived being a pastor’s kid.My wife is just the opposite. She’s a fighter. That’s her survival mode. When she’s put in that position, she is a force of nature. You can probably guess how many of our early relationship conflicts went down. She fought, and I fled.
This is part of our survival mechanism as a species. If something stressful and dangerous occurs, our instincts take over. This is beneficial when we are facing such a situation. It is detrimental, however, to relationships as well as general psychological health.
We can see this in people who have experienced trauma. They have strong memories of what happened to them to make sure they can be on the lookout for it in the future. If they are triggered, if something in their environment brings back those memories, their survival mode kicks in. I remember one night when this happened at work. I was working at a pizza place, and several pizzas were going through the oven. Unfortunately that was the moment the oven decided to stop working. When the pizzas came out, they were a little undercooked, but I really didn’t notice. I’m not the most observant person. When my boss saw them, he yelled at me and couldn’t understand how I didn’t catch the problem. I completely froze. I was so tense. I just shut down and became silent. Later that night I broke down crying. At the time I didn’t understand very well about triggers and trauma, so I had no clue why I was responding that way. We react in different ways to environments that are dangerous or that trigger past trauma.
Others in my shoes may very well have responded by screaming back at my boss and losing control of their anger.Threatening situations are not conducive to healthy relationships, constructive conversations, or trust building. While I’m no expert on how the brain works, I do understand, from others smarter than I am, that there is a neurological explanation for this. Our brains have different regions with different responsibilities. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for much of what makes up our personality. It’s also how we reason and think clearly. The amygdala in our brain is responsible for the emotions that have to do with survival mechanisms, like fight or flight.
What happens in a threatening situation is that the amygdala takes over. Our prefrontal cortex, which gives us our ability to reason and makes up our personality, then goes completely out the window. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, refers to these moments as “neural hijackings.” As he explains, “The amygdala’s extensive web of neural connections allows it, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain-including the rational mind.”
Tense situations can stir up the emotions in us that “hijack” our ability to analyze and process. Goleman elaborates, “The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for working memory. But circuits from the limbic brain to the prefrontal lobes mean that the signals of strong emotion-anxiety, anger, and the like can create neural static, sabotaging the ability of the prefrontal lobe to maintain working memory. This is why when we are emotionally upset we say we “just can’t think straight”-and why continual emotional distress can create deficits in a child’s intellectual abilities, crippling the capacity to learn.”
Tense situations can happen, and our fight or flight system is an essential tool. However, in cases where the threats and stress are a constant presence, they can have devastating effects on our ability to think, as well as our general ability to truly experience the world around us for what it is.Why am I talking about this? If threatening situations or conversations have the power to shut down our ability to think straight and to be present, what do you think happens when someone hears a “turn or burn” message about the Gospel? What happens when we are told that God’s fundamental attitude toward us is anger and wrath? In this case the stress becomes a constant presence. Could there be anything more threatening than to hear that the all-powerful being in the universe put a hit out on you? But thank God that Jesus took the hit instead, right?
This is the way that many Evangelicals view what is happening on the cross. God is angry with us because of our sin and needs justice. Apparently justice means death, and so he wants to go after us. Instead, Jesus offers to be punished in our place. God the Father ends up looking more like the Godfather.
Praise for There’s a God in My Closet
“We all leave childhood with some ‘exit wounds’ and internalize them as some form of ‘I am not enough.’ Since no one can shame us more deeply than those from whom we expect grace, our families and spiritual communities unknowingly and unintentionally can be deeply wounding. Ben‘s journey reminds us that God‘s healing grace is immeasurably greater than all our shame.”
—Paul D. Fitzgerald & Susanna Fitzgerald, Founders of HeartConnexion Seminars
“Many of us go through painful periods of faith deconstruction.Some of us abandon the struggle, overwhelmed by the pain and disorientation, and settle for either a life of shallow faith or no faith at all. … DeLong reminds us that our weaknesses do not disqualify us. Rather, they birth in us a hard-won compassion and open us to receive the unexpected revelation of God’s unconditional love and acceptance.”
—Stephanie Lobdell, Author of Signs of Life
“What if our image of God is not just incorrect but causing more problems than it’s helping? Ben is not afraid to travel to the dark places and find real answers instead of suppressing the hurts and disappointments. His journey took courage, but it was worth it.”
—Karl Forehand, Author of Apparent Faith
About the Author
Ben DeLong writes about faith, spirituality, and life. He has a complicated relationship with faith. Most of his baggage and scars can be directly or indirectly traced to his life in the church-growing up as a pastor’s kid, and later becoming a pastor himself. On the other hand, he has experienced incredible healing and life giving moments as he has encountered Jesus Christ. He has been married for 14 years and he and his wife are in the process of adopting their first child.