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Understanding Fight-or-Flight & How to Manage in Stressful situations

The body is designed to automatically react to danger. By simply thinking of a stressful situation the body can trigger a “fight-or-flight” response. Fight-or-flight is an instinctual/sudden surge in strength providing an individual with the ability to either powerfully engage (fight) or to quickly flee (flight) from a threat. Just as you would jump upon hearing a sudden loud noise, the instant that your brain detects apparent danger your heart rate will involuntarily increase; pumping blood to your muscles. Muscle tension will boost strength, while heavy breathing will allow for greater oxygen intake, enabling endurance. This is essentially what anxiety is. It is the body reacting to a perceived threat.

The brain in fight-or-flight mode can be compared to a parent telling a child to run out of a burning house. When the child tries to understand what is happening and questions the parent, the parent says, “Run now, ask later.” Similarly, your ability to logically assess and to respond to a situation is severely compromised when a threat is sensed, as your body immediately responds to ensure survival, before your mind does. Hence, it may not always be possible to think your way out of an intense emotional reaction in the moment, even if you know that the threat is in your mind. So what can you do to calm down and to help get your nerves under control when experiencing anxiety?

When you are feeling anxious you should conduct yourself as if you are not anxious – even when alone. Any outward action signifying that you are not in mortal danger will send signals to the brain that the threat has past. Which in turn will elicit the body’s natural ability to settle down and to self-regulate. The logic is simple; if a bear where to be running after you, you would not sit down to have a picnic. In other words, anything that you do, that you would not do when faced with mortal danger will help to calm you down.

It’s important to figure out what specific action calms you down and raises your state of mind when you are feeling anxious. For some exercise works, for others it’s gardening, cooking, cleaning or getting into a daily routine. Many find that fresh air and consciously slowing down their breathing is helpful, while others feel that listening to music is particularly soothing. Alternative ways to help relax your nerves include reading, writing or unwinding in your favorite chair with a warm drink or a snack.