Do little things leave you in a state of extreme anxiety, with a beating heart, dry mouth, and sweating palms? Have a tendency to run out on arguments, and it constantly causes issues in your relationships? Or freeze and go blank, right when life requires you to step up to the plate?
Fight, flight, or freeze is actually a physiological (aka bodily) response, coming from the oldest, ’primal’ part of our brain. Also called 'acute stress response', it triggers when our primal brain feels a threat approach, then floods our body with a potent cocktail of chemicals designed to help us deal with the threat.
The problem is that this older part of our brain was developed when we were living in caves and dealing with life threatening dangers like wild animals. And while a huge rush of cortisol and adrenaline might have then helped us escape with our lives, it’s not necessarily helpful with a modern day threat like, say, a first date or work presentation.
So what do all these bodily symptoms look like? They can include:
If you are the type to go into fight or flight, you might experience;
If you are the type to freeze, you might instead find you:
Remember, it’s also called ‘acute stress response’.
The problem is that a stressful modern life can trigger the primal fight, flight or freeze response. The more we are stressed, the more we are living on a cycle of highs and lows, buzzed out cortisol highs then crashes.
Our appetite, sleep, and moods are affected. We can get snappy with people we love and jeopardise relationships. It can all lead to being depressed.
And if we have post traumatic shock disorder (PTSD) from a difficult experience, or complex PTSD from a series of adverse childhood experiences or prolonged trauma? Then our stress response can become overactive. Little things set us off, meaning we are constantly in a state of fight, flight, or flight, and suffering all the physical symptoms that presents.
This constant diet of fear followed by bodily response is the basis for anxiety attacks. Those with anxiety disorder know acute stress response well, it becomes part of their daily lives.
First of all, recognise it’s an unconscious bodily response and out of your control. Trying to control fight, flight, or flight can often just trigger more anxiety. Don’t blame yourself for it, try to relax into it using the following tools, and remind yourself it will pass.
Mindfulness meditation as a constant practice can mean you are triggered less. If you are already in the midst of a stress response, then try ‘five senses’ mindfulness. Focus all your attention on what is around you, noting one thing for each sense - a smell, a colour, a sound, etc.
Deep, long, and slow breathing, right into your diaphragm and to a steady count, helps trigger your parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite system to the one triggered by fight, flight, or freeze. Some people swear by breathing into a paper bag or a straw.
A tool used by therapists with clients, this involves working through each muscle set and tensing then relaxing.
There is a reason a good long run, for example, is many people’s go-to for stress release. Exercise releases endorphins and other chemicals that can counter stress. Exercising in nature can be even more calming; research now shows nature positively affects our moods.
Seemingly strange things like repetitively tapping your lower lip gently but firmly with two fingers, running fingers up and down your arms, hugging yourself, or getting hugs from others, can again trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which works to calm down nerves.
Not only can therapy help you get your stress response under control, it’s highly recommend if you have anxiety, PTSD, or too much life stress.
Cognitive behavioural therapy in particular is useful as a start, helping you get control of your negative thinking. When you learn not to see the world as dangerous and threatening, and have less extreme thoughts in this direction, you will be less likely to be triggered into fight, flight, or freeze mode.