All Flight Reactions Don’t Look the Same

All Flight Reactions Don’t Look the Same post page

By Alejandro DeJesusMay 22nd, 2020

All Flight Reactions Don’t Look the Same

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by Alejandro DeJesus,

PAC Lead Mentor Coordinator


Hey, open your eyes. They came here to see you. C’mon, you opened them last time people came to see you. While she says it, she continues to grab his arm and shake a bit. I stand there for what seems like an eternity before I turn away. I go to take my coat off and completely turn my body away from what is happening, this is my flight response.

A flight response should only kick in when there is a threat. What’s the threat here? For me, it’s the way someone I love, who is living with dementia, is being talked to and treated. Taking my coat off removes me from the situation. Now my brain can no longer take in the visual and auditory data that is causing me distress. Without realizing it, my primitive brain helped me remove the threat. I get a moment to be away from the situation and until now all the knowledge in my pre-frontal cortex has meant absolutely nothing. My brain only starts to think of anything that is going to get me beyond reacting when I have separated myself a bit from the situation.

The knowledge in my pre-frontal cortex tells me that this person interacting with the person I care deeply for is unaware that what she is doing isn’t going to make a big difference. In addition to making him recoil by grabbing the back of his arm, there is also some faulty logic. Having a previous experience where someone interacted with a visitor in one way doesn’t mean that its going to happen the exact same way every time someone visits. People living with dementia are doing the best they can. During certification courses this phrase comes up almost every time, I usually add in and so are we as care partners.

A few minutes pass and we have gotten situated. I am ready to try something. My pre-frontal comes up with a plan. Compliment the person for working with him on lunch and give a short and simple Positive Action Starter. Here is what it sounds like in my head, Thanks so much for helping him with lunch. We are going to visit with him in his room. Before I get to do that, he is brought into his room. I do still get to say thanks and preserve a relationship.

I was happy to spend some time with Mr. Haffner that afternoon. He has been like a father to me. He was even the officiant at my wedding.

For more than 30 years he was a teacher. When he taught, he was known for jumping on tables, singing/rhyming, and getting students to remember improper fractions by describing them as Dolly Parton (let that one sink in for a moment). He was great at hooking new knowledge in with a positive amygdalae reaction. I don’t know for sure that he knew the brain science behind it, I wouldn’t put it past him. What I know for sure is that he knew it got his students to learn better.

The other threat to me in this whole situation is that the person I have known for so long has changed. I can’t make it the way it used to be, but I can continue to use PAC skills during visits and with everyone else that I interact with. I don’t really care if he opens his eyes when I visit again. Just getting to be there with him was enough to help me think about the great moments we spent together.

My favorite one, being at a Detroit Tiger’s game that ended in a walk-off grand slam win. It literally made him cry. I didn’t get teary eyed then, but I do now when I think about it. That was another amygdale moment for me that I shared with him, the difference is that it was a pleasure amygdalae reaction.


7 Comments on “All Flight Reactions Don’t Look the Same”

  1. Lovely thoughts and feelings on how to be present with the person with memory issues and the other. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Alejandro you made me realise that flight are not always triggered by a real fright. The fright to flight could also be triggered by sadness. Thank you for the reflection, I enjoyed reading this.

  3. Hi Alejandro,

    I must start with an apology. Ever since the Brain Connection Cafe a while back, the one using instruments, I associate you with an accordion. What I remember most, however, and continue to find is how generous and insightful you and the entire PAC team are. Here you are again being generous and insightful. I understand flight, for my self and my mum-in-law, who was also with us at the Brain Connection Cafe, differently now. I am going to sit with this and think about it more, including how flight might work for some of my students who might be avoiding specific curriculum becasue it threatens them in some way, e.g. previously being told they are no good at something, being shamed for previous work, and the like. I am going to get very curious about flight reactions as a care partner, daughter, teacher, sister, academic, spouse, auntie, and in my other roles as well. I have so much to learn about how to be a better person. Thank you and the entire PAC team for inviting us to learn and supporting us as we do. P.S. My mum-in-law had COVID-19. We learned how to communicate with her in all our PPE from PAC. She can now sit up comfortably several times a day in a chair and her upper-body strength continues to build, thanks to Teepa’s excellent suggestions during a Family Care Partner session. My mum-in-law celebrated he 91st birthday with solid food, all her favorites, and she fed herself. I watch videos, live sessions, and I have taken the Care Partner Support Series several times. I will take it again becasue I always learn something new in the series. I still have so much to learn, but I need all of you to know that I can better meet my mum-in-law where she is becasue of the entire team! THANK YOU!

    1. Dale,

      Thank you so much for sharing with us! I appreciate your apology for associating me with an accordian. Honestly, I think that there are far worse things that I can be associated with 🙂 . One of the things you were curious about was the flight reaction from students. I had never thought of that before! As a former teacher I started to use so many of the PAC principles and skills in my classroom but I was still very new to PAC then. I wanted to say thank you for teaching others, its a role that is difficult at times but certainly important.

      So glad (and relieved) to hear that your mum-in-law has recovered from COVID-19. I distinctly remember your question on an Ask Teepa Anything session. It was towards the very end and as a head first person I can recall feeling inspired that you were willing to help in the situation that seemed so daunting. Looking forward to seeing you on other PAC get events. My best to you, your mum-in-law and entire family.

  4. Thank you –for making me feel better about my own flight response—that I’m not unusual for thinking, at times, “I can’t deal with this right now.” ==and that there’s a name for it: “flight response”.

    1. Hi Gale,

      Thanks for leaving a comment on what you noticed. It’s so strange but that idea of “I’m not unusual” can be such a relief for me. Getting that sense of, “this is normal” can be pleasing. We all have the same brain structures but sometimes retain a belief that this cant be happening to anyone else.

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