Fight or flight. It’s a phrase you’ve definitely heard at some point in your life; the process whereby, in moments of intense stress, we are pushed to either flee the situation or stand our ground and confront the threat. When this phrase is invoked, we often think of life-threatening situations: an act of violence, a car accident, a fire in the home. But, research in neurology and psychotherapy actually reveals that we frequently undergo this experience.
Our lives are busy, challenging, and often chaotic – and that’s before we even consider what is going on in the wider world around us. These personal stressors can trigger that fight or flight response regularly, so it’s in our best interest to understand this process and then practice techniques to handle it. Let’s take control of our bodily systems and work toward balance.
What’s Behind Fight or Flight?
As the folks at Harvard Medical School explain, fight or flight is the product of two brain segments working together. Our amygdala is activated when we perceive a threat, either to our entire body or just to our mind, and it relays that message to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for flooding our bodies with adrenaline.
That flood of adrenaline really goes a long way. Our heartbeat goes up, blood circulates to our organs and muscles, our breathing shifts and our senses sharpen. If the situation remains stressful, our hypothalamus goes a step further and initiates the release of cortisol. That causes the amped up feeling you may recall from a particularly stressful fight or flight experience. It makes us feel powerful, focused, and ready to act.
So, What’s the Concern?
Fight or flight is a neat system – one designed to keep us safe. However, if you find yourself responding to a work deadline or an argument with your spouse like it’s life-threatening, then it’s healthy to want some regulation.
That’s the central concern: excessive response. In many ways, modern life has become simpler and more efficient. We’ve developed systems and technologies that help us to save time and focus on the seemingly never-ending quest for ‘self-improvement’. What we don’t realise (until it’s too late) is all this quest becomes quite stressful in itself. We put pressure on ourselves and ask questions like “Am I maximising my efforts at work?”, “Will missing this deadline ruin my entire life?”, and “Was that response to my friend perfectly crafted? What if they hate me now? Will I be alone?”
Everyday interactions and tasks now take on monumental significance. The stakes seem so high. And when we view so much of our lives through this stress-inducing prism, it’s no wonder we begin to respond to everyday situations as if they are life or death. We can trigger the fight or flight response when it’s hardly necessary.
Sometimes this heightened response is the consequence of trauma, and your responses can expand to fight, flight, freeze, fawn or flop (learn more here). If you’re someone who has experienced trauma and is now responding to everyday situations in a heightened manner, I strongly encourage you to seek out a therapist who can help guide your nervous system recovery.
Can I Moderate My Fight or Flight Response?
The short answer is yes, and it involves learning about the parasympathetic nervous system, which forms the other half of our autonomic nervous system. As Bessel van der Kolk explains, the sympathetic branch of the nervous system “acts as the body’s accelerator” and the parasympathetic “serves as its brake”. When it comes to moderating our fight or flight response, we want to learn how to apply the brake.
This is no small thing. Balancing out the two systems is vital to moving through the world in a way that puts you in charge. To quote Bessel van der Kolk again:
When our autonomic nervous system is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our response to minor frustrations and disappointments, enabling us to calmly assess what is going on when we feel insulted or left out. Effective arousal modulation gives us control over our impulses and emotions: As long as we manage to stay calm, we can choose how we want to respond. Individuals with poorly modulated autonomic nervous systems are easily thrown off balance, both mentally and physically.
As you can see, this has impact way beyond the specific moment that your fight or flight impulse gets triggered. Working on balancing the autonomic nervous system as a whole is key to calmly navigating everyday life.
To be absolutely clear: I’m not saying that the fight or flight response should be avoided. It’s an incredibly useful part of our bodily architecture and we do rely on it to stay safe. What I’m discussing here is healthy experiences of fight or flight; ones that don’t prevent us from living our lives.
How Do I Apply the Brake?
Fortunately, there are many ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system; to put on the brake. Even better: so many of them are cost-free.
- Breathing: Yes, that most essential behaviour is what can help you even things out. Our brilliant contributor Ellie Bull has written about this before, so I invite you to read her article titled “The Benefits of Breathwork for Anxiety”.
- Yoga: This is a practice that van der Kolk encourages in his bestselling book, The Body Keeps the Score. Don’t stress if you can’t join a local, in-person practice. We live in an age when people are happy to provide free classes online, especially on YouTube. Look around online and find an instructor who suits you.
- Meditation and Mindfulness: This one is a recurring suggestion here at Onilien, and that’s for good reason! Mindfulness practices – and meditation in particular – cause us to centre ourselves and be aware of how our bodies are responding to stimuli. There are many different ways to practice this, so it’s important that you do some research online and find a method that works for you.
It’s vital that each of us reflect on how we respond to everyday life. With so much of life sitting outside our control, we need to invest in those aspects we can manage. These exercises won’t immediately reset your fight or flight response – it will take dedicated time and effort. But, when it comes to something so fundamentally tied to how we navigate the world, this may be the best investment in your mental health.