When someone becomes upset, and the tensions rise, what is your response? What about if that person is you?

A seemingly small moment can quickly take a turn, and suddenly there is tension and conflict. It can happen so fast that it can appear like it came out of nowhere. This sense of surprise, or shock, can really impact our ability to respond in healthy ways, not to mention the plethora of other emotions that might accompany a particular stressful situation. We can so often find ourselves escalating conflict instead of de-escalating, helping to restore a sense of calm, where thoughtful communication is possible.

In many ways, de-escalation is not only a skill, it’s an art. There are so many things that can make or break how effectively we are able to turn down the dial of intensity, both within ourselves and with others. One thing is for sure: there’s no hope of being able to effectively de-escalate a situation if we’re all worked up too.

This is where a pause can be our best friend. A moment to process the possible shock of an escalated situation, and a moment to calm our own nervous system. With a calmer nervous system, helping our bodies feel some sense of safety and connection, we now have the ability to share that sense of calm with others.

As you read through the following reflections by Dr. Rebecca Bailey, Jaycee Dugard, Margie McDonald, and Carmen Theobald consider what “de-escalation” means to you.

Reflections on “De-Escalation” from trauma therapist, Dr. Rebecca Bailey

De-escalation is a superpower accessible with a lot of work and patience. Try it when you begin to get lodged into a conflict with a close friend or someone you know well. Begin with someone you know as a first step. By starting with a close friend, you can help yourself identify your activators to escalation. Be sure to remind yourself that it is important to support the other person’s nervous system as well as your own. The key is to take a break if you find yourself heading in the wrong direction. Once we hit the zone of flooding, we momentarily lose the skill to support each other compassionately and curiously.

Reflections on “De-Escalation” from trauma survivor, Jaycee Dugard

De-escalation takes training and knowledge. During my years of captivity, I didn’t have any training on how to survive and keep my captors calm, yet I can think back to many times I stayed calm in many situations that were scary. How did I do this? How does anyone do this and survive?

I also believe I was somehow influencing my captors to be calmer when escalation was more than likely to occur. The capacity to calm another from an escalated state is not something I was consciously aware I was doing. It was just what I did to survive. De-escalation feels somewhat like appeasement to me. I think the difference between de-escalation and appeasement is that one is a conscious process and the other is an unconscious process. I had no idea what I was doing yet I was able to survive a very dangerous couple. Dr. Rebecca Bailey and I have written a review paper along with leading authority on Polyvagal Theory, Stephen Porges, on the phenomenon we call: Appeasement: Replacing Stockholm Syndrome as a Definition of a Survival Strategy. Learning how to calm down and regulate yourself can lead to being able to calm another person. It’s not an easy thing to learn and there are many situations that you probably find yourself in where this is challenging to do. I think in these times it’s important to remember that the only one you can control in this world is you. If this is your first priority the rest falls into place.

Reflections on “De-Escalation” from horse specialist, Margie McDonald

Horses respond to stimulus around them in many different ways. When they feel threatened or scared, they can react by spooking, shying, bolting, and in general, panicking. It is important to recognize the horses body language in order to help de-escalate a reactive and potentially dangerous horse. When the horse’s autonomic nervous system gets activated, their bodies can show us signs or signals of panic and fear. Their facial expressions often show that the eyes widen, the mouth clamps, the nostrils flair and the ears are either flat back or rigidly forward. The head can become very elevated and stiff. Their body contracts, (to get ready to move quickly), and often they place their front legs wide apart (to balance themselves for whatever is coming next). These are signs that they are in a dysregulated state and are not often aware of where and what their bodies are doing. Fear is driving the horses’ behavior and they have made the sudden shift to survival and the flight/fight/freeze response.

When a horse is in a heightened state of dysregulation, we can help restore calmness and reasoning by de-escalating the situation. We can do this by establishing a connection to redirect their attention, refocus their perception, and help them to let go of their fear. We can then support and remind them that they are safe. When safety is realized, de-escalation can occur. This means slowing things down with the horse. Taking deep breaths and becoming calm. By gently guiding the horse we can help them restore a shared state of ventral vagal and sympathic pathways which will help quiet their nervous systems response. When we can de-escalate the situation, we can help the horse return to a sense of safety, becoming curious, relaxed, and open to learning. It can be as simple as getting the horse to look at you. That is the beginning of making a social connection which can lead to a more regulated nervous system.

Reflections on “De-Escalation” from empowerment coach, Carmen Theobald

Working with horses as a farrier has been some of the most intensive and important training I’ve ever received in de-escalation. When horses get their feet trimmed or shod, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Very often, they have big objections to this aspect of their health care. They could be in pain, have had a bad experience with another farrier, feel afraid about something in the environment, have not received proper training around their hooves being picked up, they can be picking up stressful energy from the people in their environment, and the list goes on. These are all valid reasons for not wanting the work done, and yet, I still have to find a way to work with them.

Learning to do this very physical, and at times dangerous job with these massive and power beings has been like getting a doctorate in the school of hard knocks and nervous system regulation. When I’m dysregulated in my nervous system, the horses know and feel that immediately. If I have any hope of truly de-escalating a dangerous moment with a horse, it truly has to come from within me. Yes, there are techniques and movements that help, but the most impactful piece has always been about de-escalating my own inner world: making non-judgmental space for my fear, anger, and stress, then helping myself access a calmer state.

These are the same skills that I bring to my coaching and facilitation. Humans and horses have the same needs for a sense of safety and connection, and when tensions are high, we all benefit from having someone to help us de-escalate and access a calmer state.

Now it’s your turn!
What does “de-escalation” mean to YOU?

Dr. Rebecca Bailey
Author: Dr. Rebecca Bailey

Dr . Bailey is a leading trauma therapist who specializes in complex case scenarios. She has over 30 years of experience in the field and continues to be dedicated to the notion that authenticity, common sense, and kindness are the most important elements of effective treatment. She is a lifelong equestrian and animal lover who continues to believe animals, in particular horses, have much to teach humans about curiosity and compassion.