Thanks, overactivated stress-response cycle, but I’m safe now


By Carolina Murriel

My new partner misses a phone date, and suddenly there is a tiger in my living room, stalking me from behind the couch.

He doesn’t care about me.

The tiger growls.

Every good thing in our relationship up to this point has been all in my head.

The tiger swipes at my back and I type furiously: “I guess I’m not important to you…” something something angry ultimatum. It startles the tiger. He recedes into the wall and I look up from my phone into my sunny, empty living room.

I delete the text and recoil from my phone and the fight response it almost enabled, scooting myself horizontally onto the couch with my eyes closed. I breathe in deeply through my nostrils and exhale a longer breath through my mouth. I am safe. My body though, and my brain, didn’t know it. At least not immediately.

Long ago, humans lived among predators like tigers and lions. Evolution, in its wisdom, equipped us with a sixth sense to detect mortal danger, and engage a survival response: our “fight or flight” stress-response mechanism. I have never been in mortal danger of predation by a big cat, but our prehistoric inheritance is so powerful, it has taken me three decades, several explosive relationships, immeasurable agony, years of therapy, EMDR, trauma studies, and one particular chapter of a book about female sexuality to redirect this ancient failsafe.

“Come As You Are” by Emily Nagoski primarily aims to help people with clitorises depathologize their sexuality. Chapter 4 is dedicated to explaining how stress affects our sex lives. Nagoski uses a lion as an example to explain what stress feels like to our brain: If a lion is chasing you, does your brain think it’s time for sex? Most likely, no. Brain thinks it’s time to run, kill the lion, or play dead.

Her explanation made everything click for me. 

I’ve learned through my trauma studies that I developed an insecure attachment to my primary  caregivers as a child. I understood I had attachment trauma, and that it impacted my intimate relationships – I didn’t need to learn attachment theory to register my instinct to lash out when I’d been hurt. But the lion metaphor revealed to me that my brain learned early on to code distance or rejection as life-threatening, because if a caregiver rejected or left me as a child, I likely wouldn’t survive. Unfortunately for me (and my partners), my brain didn’t update the software when I became a self-sufficient adult (voilà: trauma).

So, when I detect the faintest scent of rejection or risk of abandonment, my brain springs to protect me from the tiger it is sure is after me. My aforementioned tendency to “lash out” tells you my go-to stress response is fight. Cue the negative self-talk to fuel the anger that ends in aggression. All because… someone lost track of time?

My forgetful partner is not a tiger. I am not an early human. My mortal threats are less pronounced than theirs were. Less pronounced even than my own, when I was a child. While I am grateful to evolution and its stress response mechanism that helped me survive, I would like to propose a tweak: that after all my years in therapy and informed introspection, later humans of my line be blessed with a more discerning stress response. One that allows them to say, “I was hurt when you didn’t call when you said you would,” instead of reaching for their prehistoric hunting knives.

Carolina Murriel is a writer, artist and journalist in New Orleans. She’s co-founder of Pizza Shark, an award-winning podcast studio working toward radical inclusivity in media. Carolina teaches trauma-informed storytelling and works with the personal essay as a healing practice. She is an alum of INELDA’s end-of-life doula training, and she is pursuing a graduate certificate from the Trauma Research Foundation.

Photo by Mohan Moolepetlu on Unsplash

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