How to Switch Off Your Fight or Flight Response
Any time that your brain, not you, decides that you are in danger it triggers what we know as the fight or flight response.
Our brain does this as a means of helping you get through dangerous situations but sometimes it also happens when it really isn’t needed.
The problem is that the more often that it is triggered, the less time it will be to get activated and it will come on stronger than the last time. You will have probably seen this in yourself when you might be a little stressed and that next thing that doesn’t go to plan, you lose it.
Your stress response is not something that you can just “snap out of“. Your brain has been working for years to develop its own effective way to keep you safe, it is not just going to allow you to overcome this system. It will take time and practice.
I don’t think it would ever be a smart idea to try and put a complete stop to this reaction but I do believe it can and should be controlled.
Some people seem to always be living in that response. For these individuals, the physiological features occur either far too frequently or inappropriately. If your body is always on high alert, it will drain you.
This is especially important during any survival situation. Sure, you will get stressed but in order to really survive, you’d need to be able to stay in control.
It doesn’t matter if you are walking up to a stranger in the street or your roof just got torn off by a tornado. Your brain perceives all stress as the same. Danger!
Control Your Breathing
To control your fight or flight response you must first learn to control your breathing. There are hundreds of different techniques that you can use to control your breathing and we are just going to look at two of those techniques.
- Box breathing – Inhale to the count of 4, hold that breath for 4, exhale for 4, hold again for 4 and then repeat.
- Wim Hof Method – Max inhale and exhale sharply (breathe in plenty, release just a little). Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. On the last breath cycle, breathe in completely, exhale completely and hold your breath for as long as you can.
There is only you that can make the decision as to how many repetitions you should aim for. If you only managed a few cycles you will already feel so much more in control.
Here is a quick video for box breathing:
And here is one for the Wim Hof Method:
The reason this works so well is that it is impossible for the human body to be in both a heightened alert state and a relaxed state at the same time. It can only be one or the other.
Exercise and Unwind
I am not telling you that you need to be running a marathon here but it has been proven time and again that exercise reduces stress levels.
The whole point of the fight or flight response is that it’s meant to be followed by a burst of activity. Exercise is the simplest and most effective means of calming the nervous system.
You can do anything at all as long as you get your heart pumping faster. Work with the equipment and space that you have available or go for a walk or a jog.
The excess stress hormones that your body has created will start breaking down with just 5 minutes of intensive sweat inducing movement.
Again, only you can put a time limit on this but you will start to feel so much better even just with 5-minute bursts of exercise at regular intervals.
Know That Your Body is Lying
Your body wants you to do everything that your brain says. The fact is, your body will lie.
Because fear and anxiety can bring with them physical symptoms it is really important that you understand the physiology behind these symptoms from the start.
A common example is, “my chest is tight I am having a heart attack”. When you are having these thoughts and these feelings, you need to tell yourself that actually you are OK. If your chest is tight, tell yourself “I am medically safe. This is my body preparing to run or fight.”.
This is where your body will start lying and trying to draw you back in. If we use that example again, you might tell yourself that you are safe and you might believe it. Then the “what if” questions will start popping up in your mind. This is human nature so don’t start thinking that you’ve failed. Just keep reminding yourself that you’re safe each time the question arises.
Over time, you won’t just begin to understand that you are safe, but you will also ‘feel’ it in your heart too.
By taking the time to learn what situations trigger your own fight or flight response, you will be in a better position to recognise and act on those feelings.
Mindfulness and Living in the Now
This is certainly no easy task, it takes a lot of practice. Some days it will seem near impossible while others may seem pretty easy.
Why is mindfulness important? This is what will allow you to pay attention to the present moment, non-judgmentally. It will allow you to start to recognise when your automatic survival response is occurring. You will get those thoughts and feelings but you will be able to distance yourself from them.
As an example, let’s say that you are out with a group of friends having a meal. You say something but the person opposite you doesn’t give the response that you expected. What happens?
- Fight or flight response activated.
- Emotions and thoughts flood you. “They don’t like me“, and “what did I say wrong“.
- You have an urge to just run away or sometimes even respond in cruelty.
Just because that person opposite you at the table didn’t give the expected response, there are many reasons as to why that might be. Here’s the kicker, many, if not all of those reasons have absolutely anything to do with you or what you said. With mindfulness, you will learn how to think logically before acting.
There are many famous faces out there that will tell you that mindfulness is about clearing the mind. Maybe they want you to buy their mindfulness book or DVD. It’s lies!
You can’t just ‘clear’ your mind, it’s impossible! Mindfulness is however, about giving you the ability to notice the different thoughts and to bring yourself back to the present moment.
When it comes to knowing which techniques are best for you, you need to look at how you would usually deal with stress.
- Fight – If you have a tendency to become angry or agitated under stress, you may respond best to stress relief techniques that quiet you down, such as meditation, muscle relaxation, deep breathing or guided imagery.
- Flight – If you have a tendency to become depressed or withdrawn under stress, you will likely respond best to stress relief activities that are stimulating, such as rhythmic exercise, massage, mindfulness or yoga.
You need to make relaxation techniques part of your life and you can do so by:
- Schedule a specific time each day – try to give yourself one or two periods each day to practice your relaxation techniques.
- Adopt mindfulness – whether you take a walk, practice yoga, tai chi or any other exercise, focus your attention on your body. Focus on coordinating your breathing with your movements and pay attention to how your body feels as you move.
- Don’t get discouraged – when you first start out, you may find yourself skipping days or even weeks but don’t allow yourself to get discouraged.