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The Panicking Initial Reaction

Eddie Capparucci, Ph.D., LPC, C-CSAS

“It is my initial reaction that always gets me in trouble,” said Ray about his inability to be present with his wife Claire when she is grieving. “The hardest part is those first few seconds when I see that look on her face or she says something I take as critical of me. I let panic and fear grab hold and block the proper response I should have for her. It is frustrating because I know what I should do to help her, yet I still fail because of that initial reaction. She deserves better, and I want to be there for her, but I keep giving into the initial reaction.”

Ray’s confession about his struggle to support his grieving wife, Claire, echoes a sentiment shared by many men. He speaks of the paralyzing effect of his initial reaction, a response driven by fear and panic, which inhibits him from offering the comfort and support his wife deserves. You would not believe me if I told you how often men I counsel shared similar concerns. I, too, deal with this issue—the Panicking Initial Reaction—from time to time. 

Consider the scenario of a husband who is committed to sobriety but is continuously triggered when his wife wants to discuss his betrayal. His inner child, scarred by past experiences of criticism and inadequacy, interprets her words as an impending threat. His body instantly responds with a cascade of stress hormones, while his rational mind, overwhelmed by emotion, struggles to engage constructively with his spouse. His Inner Child is telling him, “We’re in trouble.”

His Little Boy recalls memories of ongoing criticism from his mother, leading to feelings of inadequacy. With his wife’s comments—she is doing nothing wrong, by the way—this husband is about to enter the realm of fight, flight, or freeze.

He will experience not only mental and emotional distress but a strong physical response—all in a period of milliseconds. His autonomic nervous system will spring into action, and the prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational thinking, will begin to shut down. The result? The husband will be left feeling defensive and combative or withdrawing and unable to engage in constructive dialogue.

What lies at the heart of his Panicking Initial Response is rooted in adverse childhood experiences. In the heat of the moment, these men are afraid of being wrong, getting in trouble, and not measuring up, to name just a few of their fears. These negative narratives, carried by their Inner Child, are the result of unresolved trauma or neglect that continues to haunt them today. Though buried deep within, those early wounds resurface when triggered by similar situations in adulthood.

Good News and Bad News

So, what should you do when confronted with the Panicking Initial Reaction? The first step is to understand that it is not completely going away. That is the bad news. The initial reaction will continue to occur because of your hypersensitive Inner Child.

The good news is you can desensitize the initial reaction. This can be accomplished by quickly identifying the mood shift and taking a few seconds to recalibrate, therefore limiting its impact. The process looks like this:

  • Recognize the Shift: When you feel the emotional jolt, take a deep breath and acknowledge what is happening. Troubling past experiences trigger you but do not define your present reality.
  • Slow Everything Down: Resist the urge to stay with the initial reaction. Instead, slow down and decide to change how you are feeling. Remind yourself you are not reliving the past; it is only an emotion being triggered by an unrelated event that seems similar.
  • Engage Rational Thinking: Challenge the distorted perception fueled by your Inner Child. Remember that your spouse’s concerns or criticisms are not identical to your past pain points. It may feel that way, but what you feel is inaccurate. In fact, your wife may not even be expressing criticism.
  • Return to the Present: Redirect your attention to your wife’s pain point and stay on the Pain Field with her. Do not shift to the fields of explaining, defensiveness, dishonesty, or aggression. Instead, re-engage in the conversation from a place of confidence and compassion.

This entire sequence should take less than 15 seconds. If needed, take a brief break (five minutes or less) to process this before returning to the conversation. 

Additionally, proactive planning can be a valuable tool in managing the Panicking Initial Reaction. Sit and outline potential triggers and identify typical scenarios in which you experience the initial reaction. Then, map out how you will handle those situations differently the next time you are faced with those circumstances. Spend time reviewing the ideas you have captured daily, allowing you to quickly regain confidence once the initial reaction has occurred.

The Panicking Initial Reaction is a manifestation of fear that can be softened with practice and self-awareness. By being aware of your responses and reclaiming control over your emotions, you can stay more connected with your spouse in her time of need. Your initial reaction does not have to dictate the outcome; you have the power to rewrite the script.