6 Ways to Switch Off The Fight-or-Flight Response
In the post entitled Why Do I Feel So Bad? An Introduction to The Fight-or-Flight Response, I described the stress response that your brain engages any time it, not you, decides you are in danger. As a recap, your brain does this thinking it is helping you to survive but unfortunately, it often perceives mortal peril at inappropriate times. Leaving you feeling terrible and desperate to escape the situation you are in.
The more frequently the fight-or-flight response is activated, the more likely it is to be activated again. It will take less to activate it and the response will likely be more forceful. This is not surprising. Think about times when you are already stressed and then something small happens, you lose it.
On a particularly bad day, I once broke down into floods of tears because my spaghetti didn’t fit in the saucepan. Yep. Obviously, the tears had nothing to do with the spaghetti. It was just the final straw, the one that broke the camel’s back.
If your fight-or-flight response has been working its little socks off all day, or for weeks on end, don’t be surprised if you snap over the most insignificant detail. And don’t worry either, there are many ways to dampen down this response and get back to a state of calm.
How do you switch this stress response off? Here are 6 effective ways:
This is a high priority for managing stress. The fight-or-flight response is meant to be followed by a burst of activity. That’s the whole point. Exercise is therefore a simple and effective way to calm the nervous system. It not only uses the energy created in the body, it metabolises (breaks down) excess stress hormones. Lower levels of stress hormones mean a calmer body and mind. However, that is not why I have put exercise in first position.
Exercise is the quickest thing you can do to manage the stress response. You don’t need to learn a new technique. You can do anything at all that gets your heart rate up and you can do it anywhere. Just 5 minutes of intensive sweat inducing movement will start breaking down excess stress hormones. So, for example, you could even hide in a toilet somewhere doing star jumps for 5 minutes. I mean, there are many more enjoyable kinds of exercise out there this is just to illustrate that exercise is possible anywhere!
Longer exercise obviously increases the benefits for your health and long-term wellbeing, but 5-minute bursts at regular intervals can be surprisingly helpful.
Exercise also increases endorphins, the feel-good hormones. So it’s an easy double win.
The other strategies are also simple but take practice.
2. Know that you are safe
It is really important to understand the physiology behind each physical symptom (see “why do I feel this way? An introduction to the fight-or-flight response.”). This will remove some of the fear and the catastrophic misinterpretation of physical feelings that can occur, such as, “my chest is tight I am having a heart attack”, “my thoughts won’t stop, I must be going mad”, “I feel dizzy, I am going to faint”. When anxiety causes your stomach to feel weird or your chest to feel tight, imagine telling yourself “I am medically safe. This is my body preparing to run or fight. That is all”.
At first, you might believe this for a second but then the “what if” feeling might creep back in. That’s ok. You just need to remind yourself you are safe over and over, each time the feelings start to pop up. Over time the head-heart shift will occur. This means that it will go from something you can know in your head when calm, to something you believe in your heart at any time, even when stressed.
Also, knowing the physiology means you can recognise when the feelings are starting to creep in and know that it is time to act.
3. Trigger the relaxation response
You need to learn how to switch off your fight-or-flight response using breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. To me this is the most important starting block for overcoming your stress response. I have written a separate blog post about this, with the specific steps for each as breathing exercises are a real skill that need practice (see 2 foolproof ways to relax for more information). There are also various Youtube videos and Spotify links for guided exercises.
Remember, during the stress response it is very hard for you to “just snap out of it”. Your brain has had thousands of years to develop its own effective way to keep you safe, it is not just going to allow you to overcome this system. This means you need to practice switching off the response when calm, over and over so that it becomes second nature and possible to effectively use when stressed.
If you have your own breathing exercises and relaxation techniques try to use them for 10–15 minutes twice per day for the best outcome. Practice when calm. Then use when the stress response pops up.
If these exercises do not work for you immediately, do not worry. There are lots of tweaks that can be done to make them work effectively for you (I am currently writing a blog post about this entitled “5 reasons your breathing exercises are not working for you”).
4. Learn to be in the present moment and not trapped in your thoughts and feelings (or more simply — learn to accept and let go)
Mindfulness is one of the most effective tools to learn for this. I am not going to sugar coat it, mindfulness is not easy, it takes practice. Some days it will be easy-ish, others it will feel almost impossible.
What is mindfulness? It means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally. There are lots of apps and classes that dedicate themselves to teaching people how to be mindful through guided meditations.
Why is this relevant? After practising mindfulness for some time you start to recognise when your automatic survival response is occurring. You learn to notice the sensations and thoughts come up in your mind and body. You also learn to separate yourself from this, becoming a passive observer, able to come back to the present moment at any time. You now get to decide how to respond rather than being a slave to your fight-or-flight response.
For example, imagine you are in a social situation, you have just said something and the person opposite you frowns. Your brain switches on the fight-or-flight, emotions flood your body, thoughts occur including “he/she doesn’t like me”, “I said something wrong”. Suddenly you want to run away, stop speaking, or even respond with cruelty. The reality is that there are many, many possible reasons for his/her frown, the majority of which have nothing to do with you or your comment. However, your brain doesn’t care about that. It has sensed danger and has prepared you to survive. With mindfulness, you would recognise that all this was happening and instead have the tool to step back from the automatic response and decide, what do I want to do? Most of the time you then just notice your automatic response and move on to the next present moment. Letting it go.
There are also a lot of misconceptions about mindfulness out there. For example, people often tell me that mindfulness is about clearing the mind. Whenever I hear this I feel sad. This is one of the main reasons I hear from people who tried mindfulness and said it wasn’t for them. They tried it, couldn’t clear their mind, felt like they had failed and then understandably stopped. You cannot just clear your mind, your mind does not want to be cleared! That is not possible. Mindfulness is actually about noticing the thoughts and bringing yourself back to the present moment, over and over. Over time it will get easier. It’s like a muscle, the more you practice the stronger that muscle will get and it will be easier to let thoughts go.
My friends know that I go on and on about yoga. There is a reason for it.
The roots of yoga can be traced back over 5000 years. It was never intended as an exercise program. It was about separating yourself from, or calming, the fluctuations of the mind. Finding a way to overcome the ego through self-knowledge and wisdom. Asanas, the poses, were added much later.
Yoga was designed to unite the body, mind and the breath. To bring you into the present. If you are anything like me and struggle with mindfulness or concentration in general, yoga is a godsend. Your brain is distracted just enough by the movement that you can finally focus on the breath and the moment. Join a local yoga class, or watch a video online and see if it makes mindfulness easier for you.
6. Share with others, spend time with friends and most importantly — laugh!
Being with friends, sharing what you are experiencing and laughing all increase endorphins. It makes us feel nurtured and shows to our brain that we are not in danger.
Most people experience similar fears and worries. If you tell your friends about what is making you panic, I would bet that they not only understand but are also able to share their own experiences.
These are just the outlines of each step. They are guidance for the techniques that have been shown in years of research to calm your nervous system. Have a go, let me know what works for you and what doesn’t. I will be writing more about breathing exercises and mindfulness, so don’t worry if you have any questions, I will be here to answer them.
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I am a Clinical Psychologist trying to get effective psychological advice out of the therapy room and into everyday life. Please share this article if you found it useful, or think it will benefit someone you know.
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April 21, 2018