Threat Physiology Can’t be Controlled with Behavioral Approaches

posted in: Recent, RUTs


  • Many people are focused on controlling anger and anxiety with behavioural approaches.
  • These powerful reactions are not controllable and suppressing them increases threat physiology.
  • We all need to be heard, supported, and taught methods to regulate and lower these responses.
  • Avoiding or suppressing stress causes damage to our bodies and causes chronic illnesses.

How many of us have heard the phrase, “children should be seen and not heard?” Or what about, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” How often were your parents not really there for you when you were upset?


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Kari is a woman who I met in 2018 when she asked me to speak at her company’s annual disability conference. I presented the nature of chronic pain and approaches to solve it. I did not realize that she jumped right in with both feet and learned the concepts. She contacted me about a year later, and shared how excited she was about how much her life had improved. We have remained in close touch and here is her recent email. I had told her about a remarkable turnaround of a 24-year-old gentleman who had broken out of his bipolar disorder, anxiety, major depression, and pain migrating around his entire body.

Her letter

Hi David, is this the young man with Bipolar you mentioned during our call?  What an incredible transformation! 

You know what hit me the other night, few children are taught how to process anxiety so they do the best they can on their own and usually create inaccurate perceptions of themselves and learn ineffective and often damaging behaviors to deal with it (the 7-year-old creates the 50-year-old).  Parents should be doing this, but many parents are trapped in their own heads with repetitive negative thoughts and don’t know how to teach their children these skills as they haven’t learned them either.  And the cycle of dysfunction continues….

A little personal story here….My aunt gave me my grandmother’s book of prayers.  My grandma was an extremely anxious woman and pretty OCD.  I was thumbing through her book and noticed my grandma had written in the margins, underlined certain passages, etc.  In the section on anxiety, she had underlined several times that “anxiety is a sin.”  My poor Grandmother thought she was a sinner her entire life because she was anxious!  How awful!

My mother was also very anxious – no surprise there.  In 6th grade, I had a boyfriend, nothing very serious at that age of course, but I went to school one day and here my best friend was now with my boyfriend.  I came home and was crying in my bedroom, mostly because my best friend had stabbed me in the back over a boy.  My mom came in and asked me what was wrong and when I told her, her response was, “get a real problem”. 

My mom was very stressed at the time with my two younger siblings and my dad always being at the bar – he was no help.  From that moment on, I never told her anything about my life that wasn’t positive and became very depressed all through junior high and high school. Not having a parent to support me emotionally really messed me up and caused me to create all these negative perceptions about myself that took me 40 years to get over.

I am grateful that I have broken the cycle of dysfunction with my son – we talk openly about these things, and he is a very high functioning and happy person. 

It’s all just so insane and sad.  Anyways, thanks for letting me share.  It was the sequence of concepts you presented that broke the cycle for me. Kari



Anger and love

Anger is a trait that blocks openness and engagement. One aspect of flight or fight physiology is that your necortex (thinking areas) are down regulated from stress hormones, the limbic system (fear) regions are activated, and you don’t even have good access to your rational thinking. Frustrated people are not rational, and there are no exceptions. Even more disturbing is that you can become crosswired and pain can be connected to “love”.

Our friend Sheila was standing in the checkout line at a grocery store when she heard a young mother screaming at her young five year-old daughter to put something back on the shelf. She suddenly hauled off and slapped her with a full swing. Almost at the same time the young girl began to cry, she held out her arms and ran to her mother to comfort her. Who else was there to console her? Talk about becoming cross-wired – the girl’s source of pain was also her bastion of love and protection.

My childhood experience with “love”

My mother would fly into rages that would last for two or three days. We never knew what would set them off, although we imagined many possibilities. We thought it was associated with our behavior, but no matter how hard we tried to avoid upsetting her, it just happened. After every tirade she would profusely apologize, and tell us how much she loved us. It was quite confusing. What even seems more bizarre in retrospect was that I was convinced that our parents loved us. I recall telling friends of mine in middle school that although my parents had some faults, at least I knew they loved us? Really??

The answer really is yes. My mother spent hours driving us around, volunteering at school, and talked about us in glowing terms to anyone that would listen. What I did not know as a young child is how disconnected anger (she also had chronic pain) can make you. She essentially entered a different reality when she became upset. From our perspective this was all a part of parental support and love.

It was so mixed up in my head that I did not even realize that anger was part of my life until I was almost 50 years old. It was just normal for me to become “frustrated” and since I was “right”, I did not have a clue that this was what anger looked like. I don’t think those close to me felt the same way. But at the same time, I was experiencing over 17 different physical and mental symptoms. I was disconnected.

What is your concept of love?

When you are an infant or child your mind is a blank slate being downloaded from your environment. If your symbols of love and protection are combined with mental or physical neglect or abuse, your concept of love will be much different than someone who was raised in a warm, caring, nurturing, and loving environment. In retrospect it is disturbing to me that I was so verbal about how much my mother loved me in the midst of a violent environment.


Sviatoslav Kovtun/AdobeStock


We all need to be seen AND heard

The common theme of these three situations is that a child was anxious and upset. The interventions took the form of suppressing and attempting to extinguish these behaviors, which were caused by a powerful unpleasant survival reaction. Many of us are taught from an early age that, “it is better to look good than feel good.” The root problem causing the reaction is often not addressed. You don’t feel heard, and you quickly learn that suppressing your feelings is better than having to deal with them. Except, what you don’t realize is that suppressing thoughts and emotions is like turning the heat up on a pressure cooker. The consequences are usually severe. The hippocampus of your brain (memory center) both shrinks and malfunctions.

The solution lies in the saying, “you have to feel to heal.” And then using strategies to regulate your flight or fight state to safety physiology. By dampening the driving force, not only will behaviors improve, but you can also live life in awareness and freedom.


  1. Hulbert JC, et al. Inducing amnesia through systemic suppression. Nature Communications (2015); published 3.15.2016. 7:11003 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms11003