Fight, Flight, or…What?

Post Author: Melissa Bills

4 pictures of white birds with blue and pink coloration each flying in a different direction

“Different Actions”

My latte is mostly gone. I’ve done as much work as I can do at the coffee shop. I look at my day planner as I prepare to head to the church. And there, scrawled neatly in my own handwriting, in blue ink, is a reminder of my 2:00 p.m. meeting.

I see it, and I want to crawl under the table.

It is just a meeting, of course. Just a conversation with a congregation member who wants to share some thoughts and concerns. Just a chance for me to listen and to love.

But there it is again, welling up in me: my pastoral fight-or-flight response.

Some panicked part of my brain is trying to manipulate my heart into bailing on the conversation or getting preemptively defensive.

I know this fight-or-flight feeling well. I get this feeling during contentious conversations at church council. And when I’m about to preach a difficult sermon. And when I need to visit a member at her deathbed, surrounded by family members I’ve never met. And before every vague 2:00 p.m. meeting request that comes my way.

The fight-or-flight response, according to biological psychology, is a gift of evolution. It is the brain’s way of sensing danger and reacting to threats for the sake of survival. If I were to encounter a puma along my walk up the hill from home to church, I would undoubtedly be grateful for my amygdala, for the way it would trigger my adrenal system into overdrive. I’d be glad for the racing heart, the quickened breath, the trembling extremities, the tunnel-vision, the inability to hear or see anything other than the threat of the moment. I would be enormously grateful for the deep, primal, urge to get the heck out of there (provided I didn’t feel up to the task of wrestling the beast with my bare hands).

But my life these days is actually stunningly bereft of puma stand-offs. So why does my brain still feel the need to get me all jumpy and anxious for far lesser threats? Why does a 2:00 p.m. conversation trigger in me the same gut response as would an encounter with a wild animal?

In part, this response is trigged because we are all wired to remember past moments of pain and fear (in order to fine-tune our future response to similar stimuli).

I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of needle pricks over the last decade, and yet I still get nervous before blood draws because of one painful fainting spell more than ten years in my past.

I have been on the receiving end of hurtful words at other points in my ministry, therefore I brace for impact going forward.

We all have stories like this in our ministries. We remember the mistrust and mistruths stirred up by congregation members, past or present. We remember the topics that have put us in conflict before. We remember the sermons that have provoked angry emails. We remember the hurt of being taken advantage of. Some of us carry with us deep wounds of harassment and abuse, emotional, physical, or sexual.

So what, then, do we do? How do we move forward in the callings God has set before us without feeling like we are always managing our pain and our fear? Is there a way to cultivate a third response, something in between the fight and flight polarities?

For me, there are at least a few strategies that I have been trying – and I will readily admit that I still very much a work-in-progress.

First Things First: If I have time to prepare, I take care of a few “first things first” practices that help me settle my anxiety and invoke the help of the Spirit to guide my heart. I pray for the person or the situation I am about to encounter. I drink a cup of tea. I turn on music that calms me. I take a break from other tasks to give myself quiet space for my head and my heart. These practices help me to stay humble (instead of getting defensive) and they help me stay grounded (instead of disengaging or running away).

Feeling the Feelings: Sometimes, it is good for me to know exactly where I stand emotionally, and so it is helpful for me to let myself feel the fears, the hurts, the memories, and the anxieties that the current stress or conflict is stirring up. Letting myself get in touch with my feelings helps me channel them more appropriately, so that I don’t let those emotions spill out sideways or in a hurtful manner in the middle of whatever I’m facing.

Forgetting…For Now: Sometimes, it is good for me not to engage the emotions that get stirred up. When I don’t have the luxury of prep time, or when the emotions are too raw and the situation at hand needs immediate attention, despite my baggage, I give myself permission to forget the things in the past that are making the current moment stressful. I turn off my brain and heart in order to do what is necessary, and then find a way to process and decompress once things settle down.

Forgiveness: I am stubborn. I am slow to engage grace and forgiveness. But a growing edge for me is to realize that some of my fight-or-flight anxiety comes from situations where I am nursing wounds of ego or where I enjoy the drama of holding onto spite instead of working toward healing. I love the idea of forgiveness as a strategy…I’m just not very good at it yet.

Fear Not: When all else fails, a quick flip through the Bible reminds me that the imperative “Fear Not!” shows up all over the place in scripture. God speaks through Isaiah to tell Israel, “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10). Gabriel says to Mary, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). When the disciples are terrified in the storm, Jesus walks to them on the water and says, “Take heart, it is I: do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). The command, “Fear Not!” gives me the push I need to persevere in the hard situations; to walk forward with courage when I would rather fight or fly away.

The call to pastoral ministry depends on our soft hearts. It is these soft hearts that allow us to empathize with people, to feel the deep longings of souls crying out for hope, to sense the acute pains and injustices in the world that only the good news of Christ can heal. We, as pastors, are vulnerable by design. The joys overwhelm. And so do the pains. This is why, for me, it is so important to find a third way, between fight and flight; a way to remain faithful to my congregation, to my calling, and to God.

Oh, and my 2:00 p.m. meeting? A perfectly lovely conversation (of course). Which just goes to show that sometimes, the best thing you can do is remind yourself that much of the time, things really do turn out okay.

Melissa Bills is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and is currently serving First Lutheran Church in Decorah, Iowa.

Image by: Muhammad Ahmed
Used with permission
1 reply
  1. Elizabeth Taylor
    Elizabeth Taylor says:

    This was beautiful! I needed to hear this so much. I have had painful experiences in my last couple appointments and I appreciate the recognition of our pains and how it triggers our anxieties. For me, it has taken some time in a new appointment that is very healthy and low-stress, to build up trust that these conversations will not be harmful. But every now and then I still get triggered. Thank you for your process of how you care for yourself. I will keep this article in mind for the future.


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