How do you react when triggered? Your Body Knows First!

Season 1, Episode 9

How do you react when triggered?  Your Body Knows First!



Catalina Lawsin, PhD

About This Episode

How do you react when sh*t happens in your relationships??

Whether at work, at home, with friends or family – how do you typically react when triggered?

In this video I’m going to chat about how our body reacts to stress when triggered, stemming from how it learned to protect itself early on.  I’ll be discussing our human tendencies to either up-regulate, down-regulate, or both.  From here, I’ll explain Dr Steve Porges’s Polyvagal Theory to explain how the three systems of our brain to: engage social support, mobilize, or immobilize. 

I’ll then get us thinking about how all this applies when it comes to sex and relationships.    

Do you find yourself aggressing or pulling away??

Do you find yourself initiating intimacy?

Do you find yourself perpetually sexually dissatisfied? 

I’ll provide a clear example of  how pain and anxiety/fear feed a common avoidance cycle. 

So begin to notice what’s happening to your body.  Remember, Your Body Knows First!

For more evidence-based tips, advice about getting Real about Sex & Relationships, please Subscribe to my:

Cheers!  Stay healthy & Safe!

Dr. Catalina


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Episode Transcript

How do you react when the shit hits the fan?

Your body knows first.


I’m dr.

Catalina Lawson and I’m a clinical psychologist specializing

in Sex and relationships.

So I want to talk today about how our bodies know first about

everything the first thing that’s going to happen.

Like I want you to take a moment to actually think about

what happens when you get triggered at work.

Whether it be because you got in trouble for something or

in your relationship, you’re pissed off at your partner.

What happens to your body?

There’s generally two ways.

Our bodies can go we either up regulate or we down-regulate.

Okay, and those doesn’t matter where you’re from or or really?

Where wherever lawyer gender unfortunately, this is just

how our body works.

So basically, why does that happen?

Okay, so when I’m saying that we go upregulated or downregulated

generally when we get up regulated our bodies go towards

it. That’s when we you’ve heard a fight or flight then generally

this is where your body is going to you know do I think it’s

going to act it’s either going to get aggressive.

It’s your maybe you’ll speak up or maybe you’ll try and fix

it and do something.

But if you’re a down regulator, you’re going to pull away.

Maybe you’ll back up or or stay quiet.

Now when I say your body knows first your body learned a

long long time ago.

What it had to do to keep you safe.


We now know.

We now know so much more about how the body works that.

That we’ve known for a while and we’re putting it all together.

So you’ve probably if you’re watching this maybe you’ve heard

of attachment Theory and this idea that basically how we

are in relationship or how we emotionally react to stressors

has to do with how we were raised in our relationships with

our caregivers.

Okay when we’re talking about how our body reacts again.

Our body learned from very early how to actually protect

ourselves. So today I want to talk to you about polyvagal

Theory and basically polyvagal theory was developed by Stephen

porges. He’s a professor at University of Illinois Chicago

and polyvagal Theory very much but gives us Theory to understand

how our body reacts to to stress or trauma when it feels

threatened and when we’re talking about individuals who are

not secure which is securely attached which is around estimates

suggest anywhere between 70 and 80 percent of the world population,

very few of us are actually securely attached because not

that everyone’s parents or everyone’s home was so-so Bad

wasn’t or or everyone experienced physical or sexual abuse

or addiction.

It doesn’t actually have to be that extreme for your body

to learn or put up protection or defense mechanisms because

it’s for some reason or another felt on safe.

So if you’re an individual who isn’t securely attached, you

may notice that you mean everyone up and down regulates that

there’s a level or a window where what we expect for everyone.

But if you notice that you either become may be too aggressive

or overly emotional or you find yourself very avoidant.

You’re more on those spectrums maybe that this will see much

more clear for you.

You so let me break down what happens to your body when we

actually build up our defenses.

So for just says that they are Isis that we actually there’s

three systems in our body in our brain that basically our

nervous system reacts to actually protect us.


So the first is our starts and it’s it’s hierarchical meaning

that it starts from top down and it starts from newer parts

of our brain to older parts of our brain.

So when we first feel in danger or feel unsafe the first

system that’s going to actually get engaged is our social

engagement system.

So this is our face.

That’s why the first thing that you’re going to be noticing

is is changes in people’s faces when they get triggered or

when their mood or emotion shift.

So this is your social engagement system because the first

thing that your body because we’re mammals and we are social

the first thing our body and brain thinks is someone help

me. So this is are oftentimes when you think of a baby who’s

giving you like a puppy dog eyes like help me, you know our

eyes might get big we might frown there’s different actions

or facial expressions that have actually been shown in across

many different cultures that are expressed that that happened

certainly our culture’s can shape how How the differences

of these Expressions but in general what happens is the first

thing that’s going to react is our face is going to shift

to actually try to get support so that you actually feel

safe. Okay, so that’s the first system.

So this is where you might cry.

Also where you’re trying to show your emotion show you’re

sad or you’re going to raise your voice you’re going to do.

Things to try to either distance or pull towards others.


So the first system is social engagement the next system.

This is where if after if your body realizes nobody’s helping

you like you’re on your own this is where your parasympathetic

nervous system gets activated.

And this is your fight flight freeze.

Your body is like fine screw it now it’s time.

I’m to mobilize.

Okay, and this is where your body is going to act.

This is now your chest area.

Okay, this is your heart and this is your lungs.


So if you notice that your heart rate increases when you

get stressed and you’re breathing generally gets a lot more

shallow. That’s your body saying get me the hell out of here.

Okay, alright because it’s trying to get you out of danger

think of think of animals in the wild and how the go together

or they’ll flee if a big, you know, a big lion comes all

of the animals flee they go away.

Okay, so this third system if over time and this is what

you see often times in chronic.

So individuals who have chronic illness or if you’re in a

chronic toxic relationship our long-term toxic relationship

with someone you love a family member when you’re exposed

to another nervous system because we co regulate our nervous

systems. Okay, we that’s that when people say oh I feel their

energy that’s your nervous system talking to their energy

their nervous system.

Okay, so when And if the if you are faced with a chronic

stressor that you can’t get help for and you can’t get out

of then.

Now your body goes into mobilization and this is where basically

it’s below your diaphragm.

And now this is when your gut gets involved, so maybe you’ve

heard about gut health and how that’s so important.

This is when your body your brain thinks man.

Now we’re on lockdown now the shit has hit the fan and and

particularly now, it’s very timely now we’re actually Going

to we have to hunker down and get ready for this is gonna

be a long winter.

So this is where you start to see individuals with GI problems

or digestive disorders things like IBS things like Crohn’s

or having girded or diarrhea people will either not be able

to eat.

They won’t keep anything on or they’ll overeat again when

your body isn’t feeling safe or isn’t Regulating its up regulating

or down regulating too much.

It feels unsafe.

Okay, and so this is hierarchical and when it gets to this

part of our brain, this is the oldest part of our brain and

generally this is where humans are very unique because most

other mammals can get themselves out of things.

But so most other animals don’t have to access this part

of the brain where it’s their only one part.

It’s the one one part of the hippocampus.

And so this is where it’s the oldest part of our brain.

This is where you don’t see other mammals.

So there’s a book out there called why zebras don’t get ulcers

and it’s because humans will stay in bad situations, even

if we have a choice, Even if we actually have the power to

get out of it.

We still stay sometimes and this particularly is in relationships

or jobs.

We don’t flee.

So that’s where humans are very different than other mammals

and particularly when we’re talking about relationships.

yeah, so again think about how when you’re thinking at the

time when I said earlier that this is hierarchical this the

first systems are social engagement with our head our mobilization

and our immobilization our social engagement if we can get

help that will inhibit Our mobilization from happening.

So insecurely attached individuals.

They’re actually going to ask for help when they need it.

They’re going to ask for directions when they need it.

They’re going to serve when they need it.

But if you’re more avoidant, you’re not and you’re and you’re

going to you’re going to repress that and you’re going to

feel alone and isolated.

but the reality is that We are social we are meant to be

connected. And so when you bring this and think about this

from the perspective of when we think about this within relationships

and particularly when we think about it insects, Like you

can imagine how over time our are feeling scared or moving

forward that push pull that happens in relationships again

in and outside of the bedroom.

You can see how that dance happens.

It’s and so it’s really important for you to keep in mind

often times.

You’ll hear people you just got to trust your gut.

Just gotta trust your gut and if you know that you feel something

weird with somebody then then assume, you know, if you feel

like someone’s lying to you then in your relationship your

partner’s lying trust your gut.

Well, that’s generally the case for people who are more in

you know.

Regulate adequately well, but if you’re in a toxic relationship

assume that your gut is fucked assume that your guts like

screw you like I am I’m out for the winter like we are not

communicating. So this idea that you might trust your gut.

Unfortunately your gut is not working right now.

So this is where you actually need to begin to reconnect

with your body.

Not twice so much work is focused on mindfulness and breathwork.

Those are strategies to begin to reconnect with your body

because as much as we know that o we can gain perspective

and you can think about challenge those negative thoughts

and better control them.

You actually can’t because by the time you’re already spiraling

and in the thick of it your body’s like the damage is done.

The moment is happened the panic attack or your bags are

packed or or you’re already engaged in that argument.

All of those things are already happening because your body

is used to actually reacting this way.

It thinks it’s the only way this is so awesome attic and

that’s one of the biggest things that I want you to appreciate

is how automatic these things are because often times particularly

in unhealthy relationships.

It is natural to blame yourself.

It is natural to feel weak and stupid and how could I do

this? Oh But the reality is is that again your body knows

first. Your body is trying to protect you your body is trying

to keep you alive.

So think about the three systems and begin one of the things

I always say is whenever you start feeling either of that

that shaky any of those physical symptoms.

Just begin to put your hand on your heart.

Okay touch is the most efficient way to regulate the most

efficient way.

Even if it’s your touch Okay to actually tell your body that

it feels that it’s safe.

So try that.


Alright guys.

Thanks so much for listening.

I hope this was helpful.

Please give me appreciate any comments or if you have any

questions about this, I know I put a lot in this video, so

I’ll break it down some more but feel free to check out my

website at, or you can follow me on Instagram.

Doctor Catalina Lawson or Phi Facebook group or hopefully

see this on YouTube as well.

All right, take it easy.




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