Heart Pounding, Hands Cold and Sweating

marriage counseling couples counseling premarital counseling heartHeart Pounding, Hands Cold and Sweating

I had an experience as part of training that got me to this place: heart pounding, hands cold and sweating.

As a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have to take continuing education every licensure period. Despite the fact that I had five years of couple training post graduate school, I am taking Stan Tatkin’s Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), and I am very excited about it.

I want to share an experience I had during training this past weekend. Maybe it will resonate with you. I volunteered to participate in a demonstration of a PACT strategy for dealing with an angry client. I was the wife, and B. was the husband.

Aggression

B. immediately started coming on very aggressively. I found that my heart rate started to speed up in response. The more he harangued me, the faster my heart pounded. My hands got cold and sweaty. I put my hands up in front of my heart, trying to energetically and somatically protect myself. That enraged him more. I began to move my chair back, farther and farther. I tried to say that I couldn’t listen/hear him when he was talking to me this way. “You see, you see,” he said to the therapist (one of our trainers), “I can’t say anything to her, I’ve tried everything.”

This went on and on. My fight, flight, or freeze mode was immediately triggered, even though this was “only” a demonstration (that’s what our brains – the amygdale in particular – are wired to do). I was shaking by this time.

I noticed the therapist moving his chair back, farther and farther. Eventually, as B. continued verbally “abusing” me, the therapist got up and walked away, to look at something on his desk. B. didn’t even notice.

I told B., “Our therapist left the room.” That finally stopped him. The therapist came back (he didn’t actually leave the room, but was doing something at his desk). The intervention that followed was so powerful and that it got B. out of anger mode and slowed him down into his feelings of loss and hopelessness.

Then B. was more available and less threatening to me. At that point, a useful conversation was able to occur.

Once the exercise was over, I had to literally “shake it off” as my system had gone into a full adrenal high – ready to run if the cheetah chased me – even though my thinking (neocortex) brain knew it was not real; it was a demonstration. And I said that I would never put up with this shit, with being talked to like that in my life – not anymore. It reminded me of my mom, sadly.

Fight, Flight or Freeze

I know some of you get into these loops of being the angry partner and the ready-to-run partner. I know your body goes into overdrive, as mine did. I know how dis-regulating it was to both of us, and to both of you. This cycle forces your bodies to create excessive amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. And excess cortisol over time becomes toxic to your body and brain.

It took time for my heart to slow down, my hands to warm up. It usually takes women about 20 minutes, and men 20-30 minutes.

Two Things

Please, if you get into these types of interactions, two things:
1. Don’t talk while you’re calming down. Do talk after 30 minutes.
2. Get help. This is not healthy for you (or your kids if you have them).