Being stuck in fight or flight – how to manage acute stress response

Do you feel agitated all the time? Do you happen to “lose it” over the smallest thing? Does it feel like you have to constantly defend yourself and your choices? When everything feels like a threat you are probably stuck in fight or flight mode.

What is the fight or flight response?

The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism. When your brain perceives danger it sets off an alarm that readies your body to fight off the threat or to escape. 

The physiological symptoms of fight or flight are a racing heart, dilated pupils, shallow breathing, muscle tension. The sight and hearing sharpens, the pain perception drops. The body is prepared to rapidly handle the threat.

When you are in fight or flight you feel alert and agitated, defensive and confrontational or as if you need to get away. The symptoms of fight or flight usually last for 20-60 minutes. When your body returns to its normal state you might feel tired and a bit anxious. Due to the lingering anxiety your fight or flight is more likely to be activated again even by a mild stressor.

Fight or flight is also known as the acute stress response or hyperarousal. It is a reflex and as such you cannot control when and where it is triggered.

How does the fight or flight response harm you?

The fight or flight evolved as a mechanism to help survive life-threatening situations. But it gets activated by any perceived danger. Things like running late, meeting new people, public speaking, or taking an exam can put you in the same state of stress as an oncoming vehicle.

The more frequently your fight or flight response is activated, the easier and more likely it is to be activated again. And it will likely be more intense. Often when you have been stressed over something important, you later find yourself overreacting over something insignificant.

Feeling threatened by a non threatening situation is what scientists call an exaggerated stress response. When your fight or flight is overactive it is triggered by daily activities like sitting in traffic or small family disputes. It begins to feel like you are in a constant fight or flight mode.

The repeated activation of the fight or flight response is what we know as chronic stress. The physical consequences of being stuck in fight or flight can include high blood pressure, migraines, chronic gastritis, obesity and formation of artery-clogging deposits. 

When you are in fight or flight too often, for too long you start feeling out of control. This could lead to chronic anxiety, panic attacks and depression.

How to manage the fight or flight response?

Fight or flight is a reaction of your nervous system. As such it cannot be controlled. There are however ways to alleviate the symptoms and to elicit the relaxation response.

The first step is to learn to recognise the signs of fight or flight. Become aware of your bodily sensations. Notice your heart rate and your breathing pace in situations you perceive as stressful. Notice where in your body you feel the oncoming stress. Does your stomach feel funny or are your shoulders getting tense?

Next step is to elicit the relaxation response. The relaxation response is your natural “off switch”. It appears when you no longer feel in danger. The relaxation response brings your systems back to their normal state.

The quickest and easiest way to battle the fight or flight response is to concentrate on your breathing. Deep, slow breaths bring down your heart rate and create relaxation. 

Next time you find yourself in fight or flight try the following breathing exercise: breathe in to the count of four, hold for the count of four, breathe out to the count of four, hold for the count of four and repeat. The breathing, as well as you shifting your focus from the stressor to your breath, will have an immediate effect on your stress levels.

Another way to alleviate the overactive fight or flight response is to focus on a calming word or mantra. Pair this with visualization of peaceful images and feel the relaxation take over. 

For the best results practice your mantra and visualization when calm. Practicing will make it easier for you to use it when you actually need it.

Prevention of overactive stress response

Practicing meditation and present moment awareness will help you to notice, observe and mindfully respond in stressful situations. You will become more aware of your sensations and you will find it easier to ground yourself when you are being triggered. 

Have you noticed you are more irritable when hungry? Fluctuating blood sugar does increase your perception of stressors. The same applies to alcohol and caffeine. A healthy diet and regular eating patterns will help manage your overactive fight or flight response.

The fight or flight response is designed to prepare the body for a burst of activity. Whether the response is to fight or to run away, they both expel a lot of energy. In the past when you’ve finished running away from the threat your body would’ve received the signal to release the tension, to switch off the response. 

Nowadays you do not physically run or fight off the threat. So the tension remains in the body. That is why it gets easier and easier to get triggered – the energy was never expelled. It just builds in the body until you burst.

Regular exercise prevents the energy build up. Exercising also increases the “feel good” hormones which also helps to relieve stress. Pair exercise with breathing techniques, like in Yoga or Ti chi, and you have the best remedy for an overactive fight or flight  response.

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