It’s a late-night and you’re shutting the lights off in the unused part of your home. You have to pass a dark, exposed window to get to the bedroom, and realizing this sends a nervous zap up your spine that urges you to bolt for safety as you approach the vulnerability.
Does that sound familiar?
What is the fight or flight response?
Your body’s acute stress response is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. In the animal kingdom, it aids survival by powering the body’s systems with the explosive energy necessary to escape danger.
You can thank physiologist and Harvard professor Walter Bradford Cannon for formally describing the reaction in the early 1900s. He was also one of the first to insist that emotional stress, not only physical trauma, can trigger fight or flight.
For modern people, the source of the reaction is often vaguer than an obvious physical threat in front of us. We tend to anticipate danger more often than it is present.
One example is the sudden urge to seek shelter when you realize your back is to a doorway or exposed window at night time. While this may have been helpful when locks and various other security devices were more primitive, civilization has recently kept us (fairly) safe and your neighborhood probably isn’t known for its packs of marauding bandits.
Civilized comforts mean that many times, our fight or flight response activates in the absence of real danger. Because the stressor only has to be a danger in our imagination, those of us with disordered thinking often find the response engaged when there isn’t something real to fear. It’s quickly exhausting and leaves you searching for ways to control fight or flight anxiety.
What does the fight or flight response feel like?
The first step in dealing with or adjusting your body’s reaction to stress is being able to identify when it’s happening. Modern triggers aren’t usually as obvious as their historical counterparts when even average humans commonly had to face something they had a good reason (from a life-preserving standpoint) to fear.
But we still find ourselves anxious when there is no clear and present danger.
Physical symptoms of hyperarousal
When you sense trouble, your sympathetic nervous system flips fight or flight’s ‘On’ switch. Your heart races. Adrenaline (also called epinephrine) is a major hormone and neurotransmitter involved in this response, responsible for binding to the receptors that regulate your heart’s output, the blood flowing to your muscles and your blood sugar.
The major reactions require energy that gets provided in the form of glucose (sugar), which is produced when the epinephrine binds in your liver. Sudden muscle tension is meant to support the strength necessary to run or physically defend.
Another boost comes via the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol, which (as mentioned) temporarily increases sugars in the bloodstream. Personally, that’s the part where I get dizzy.
Emotions in fight or flight
Those physical symptoms – the adrenaline dump, racing heart, etc. – are especially distressing without a clear trigger, and lead to the mental struggle that many find most difficult.
Anxiety and aggression are common emotional responses to the physical process going on in our bodies when stressed. There’s so much tension still there even when you aren’t actively fighting that your mind remains hypervigilant and anxious. This is true both for people with and without added panic disorders.
These symptoms are helpful for short-term bursts of energy but begin to wear on a person’s long-term health if they’re experienced consistently. Because living in this state is such a drain on the body, it’s critical to recognize and then to prioritize mindful stress management as a regular part of your life.
Relieving your nerves
With a better understanding of fight or flight and its triggers, we should consider how to identify and control it in our daily lives. Anything I mention in the next section is something I’ve personally found effective and, if not, I’ll be making that very clear.
As you leave fight or flight mode, your parasympathetic nervous system activates what’s known as ‘rest and digest’. You can strengthen and even control this parasympathetic response in a number of ways, mostly by directing your body.
BREATHE! – An easy method called diaphragmatic breathing is particularly useful for calming your nervous system.
An anecdote on the effectiveness of breathwork: I was recently obligated to attend a corporate awards ceremony-slash-dinner that hosted 200 people. It was a familiar venue where I was married a few years ago, but I got overwhelmed by the sudden chorus of voices having separate conversations when I walked in beside my husband. Using mindfulness techniques like breathing exercises as we sat really helped get me through my initial urge to avoid the situation.
MEDITATE – Meditation is not the art of relaxation. It’s the act – or art, I suppose – of repeatedly focusing your attention back to something. This practice strengthens your ability to redirect your focus during stressful situations and works hand-in-hand with the breathing exercises I just mentioned.
Just like lifting the same weight with your arm every day gradually becomes easier as your body adapts to the repetition, working this ‘mental muscle’ enough will help move your focus faster and smoother.
WORK IT OUT – A great way to get out of this stressed state is to go straight through it via exercise. Adrenaline prepares you with an explosive energy that needs an outlet – use it!
… SELF-SWADDLING? – Just like a baby whose brand new nervous system is overwhelmed by sensation, you can swaddle yourself in tight, uniformly fitting clothing (think compression stockings and athletic wear) or heavy blankets. I know this sounds absurdly simple, but it can work wonders for many of us who have long aged out of babyhood.
If you can get a better grip on your natural reactions to stress, you’ll find it becomes much easier to maintain balance in your daily life. Understanding responses like fight or flight and how we encounter them even during common activity is a big part of achieving that balance.
Go forward with these bits of information on your stress response; I hope they serve you well!