If the thought of social get-togethers leave you feeling anxious, then you need to learn how fight or flight works in your body, so you can calm your fight or flight response when you’re with others.
These holidays you may be catching up on socializing, and you may even be celebrating the holidays in large groups. The prospect of this can be daunting and for many this can be overwhelming, especially if you are out of practice meeting in big groups, or if you prefer smaller groups and lots of quiet time. If this, is you, then you may already be familiar with the fight or flight response—a catch-all term for how humans and many other animals respond to threat. However, you may be less familiar with how this natural response becomes less helpful when activated too often.
In this blog, I’ll discuss how the fight or flight response is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us deal with immediate threats, and how it is not best suited to present-day stressors like meeting and celebrating in large groups.
The fight or flight response is a “response to an acute threat to survival that is marked by physical changes, including nervous and endocrine changes, that prepare a human or an animal to react or to retreat” (Britannica, 2019). In other words, it is what your body does automatically when you encounter a threat. In this case a threat is whatever you decide is a threat. So, what is threatening for me, may not be threatening for you, and vice versa.
Evolutionarily, it makes sense that you would have a fight or flight response. If you think back to early humans who lived outdoors in the wild, they were much more likely to encounter threats from predators. Your fight or flight response is a great adaptation for these types of threats: if a lion is going to attack you, you’d want your breathing and heart rate to increase so that your limbs have more oxygen and can either fight or run away as quickly and effectively as possible. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that happening to you nowadays is slim.
Many of the perceived threats you encounter these days are not physical but rather cognitive, i.e., in your mind. There are plenty of things to worry or stress out about that do not require a physical escape or fight. However, our bodies have still evolved to react to stress in this very physical way, leading to heightened sympathetic nervous system activity and many symptoms of anxiety. For example, if you are about to give a speech in front of a room full of people, you may feel nervous. Your heart rate and breathing are likely increasing, and you are unlikely to want food (as your digestive system has slowed down). Your body is ready to fight or run if needed—even though this is not really an appropriate response for you in this situation. Here are 6 ways you can calm you fight or flight response.
Methods for counteracting the fight or flight response generally involve actively doing the opposite of what your sympathetic nervous system automatically triggers in you. For example, while the sympathetic nervous system increases your respiratory rate and your breathing becomes shallower in times of stress, researchers have found that you can actively counteract the fight or flight response by taking slow, deep abdominal breaths (Perciavalle et al., 2017).
It’s helpful to notice the signs of when your fight or flight response is more active. Each of us have signs and symptoms that alert use to this. For example, perhaps you notice that you are more likely to be on edge and jittery if you have consumed too much coffee. Or you may notice that you start to feel your chest more acutely as you become more annoyed with what someone else is saying. If this happens, this might be a good time to excuse yourself and talk to someone else or get some fresh air. Noticing these patterns can help you to change your response to these external stimuli and calm your fight or flight response.
Worrying about your fight or flight response in anticipation of socializing or while it is happening could send more signals to your brain indicating the danger is even more dangerous than initially thought. This can result in an even stronger fight or flight response or prolong your response to the situation. As a result, you may even suffer panic attacks, and if you perceive them to be harmful, the panic attack will be longer than it needs to be. Perhaps counterintuitively, accepting the sensations of the fight or flight response as normal can go a long way towards reducing them (Levitt et al., 2004).
Researchers have found links between exercise and reduced anxiety (Salmon, 2001). While the reasons for this association are still being explored, one idea is that the mild stress of exercise improves resilience to stress more generally. Other theories focus on the ability of exercise to decrease sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity (Curtis &O'Keefe, 2002). While this may not help you while you are socializing, it could be helpful in building your resilience and managing your emotions in the moment.
Recognizing when your fight or flight response kicks in and reflecting on whether or not it is helpful could help reduce your response in situations where it is not helpful. For example, if you feel yourself getting extremely anxious before a date and you’re considering canceling, notice this fight or flight response, and ask yourself if you are trying to “escape” a perceived “threat”? In reality, you are not in physical danger, even though this is what your thoughts have asked your body to prepare for. Reframing how you see the situation will help your body to calm your flight or flight response, aka your sympathetic nervous system.
In addition to potential mental health issues that a professional might be able to help you with, medical issues could also be playing a role in an overactive fight or flight response. For example, a heart arrhythmia can create a sense of panic. Additionally, beta-agonist medication, often prescribed for asthma, can activate the HPA axis and incite a sense of panic.
In summary your fight or flight response is a natural reaction that has evolved to keep people safe from potential danger and ensure your survival. Despite the clear benefits of having such a response, many of us struggle with an overactive fight or flight response that can contribute to mental and physical health problems. By understanding why you have this response and how to manage it, you can move towards greater mental and physical well-being.
● Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2019, August 12). Fight-or-flight response. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/fight-or-flight-response
● Curtis, B. M., & O'Keefe Jr, J. H. (2002, January). Autonomic tone as a cardiovascular risk factor: the dangers of chronic fight or flight. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 45-54).
● Levitt, J. T., Brown, T. A., Orsillo, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2004). The effects of acceptance versus suppression of emotion on subjective and psychophysiological response to carbon dioxide challenge in patients with panic disorder. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 747-766.
● Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F. & Coco, M. (2017). The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Sciences, 38(3), 451-458.
● Salmon, P. (2001). Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review, 21(1), 33-61.
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