Updated: Nov 12, 2021
As humans we are part of the animal kingdom, and we have many things in common with other animals such as being able to move, the need to seek and consume food, and the need to defend and protect ourselves. The need to defend and protect could also be described as the fight or flight system or stress response system. It is the way animals respond when they are threatened or stressed.
The fight or flight system was important because it kept our predecessors safe from other animals, from environmental factors, and from each other. The fight or flight system is triggered whenever we feel fear or stress and the way we respond to fear and stress today is not that different biologically from the way we responded hundreds or thousands of years ago. But the types of stress we have in our lives now is much different than it was at the time of our ancestors.
There are many situations of stress that are prolonged, and this means that the fight or flight system stays activated for a long period of time, something that it was not really designed to do. Examples of this would be living in a war zone, being in an abusive home or relationship, or working a high stress job like an EMT. There are also a lot of types of stress that are not life threatening but will still trigger the fight or flight response because of the high levels of stress that are present. Examples of this might be video games, pressure to perform at a job or at school, trying to live up to societal standards that are impossible to reach, or even high levels of caffeine consumption or stimulants.
These situations can create a lot of stress on our mind-body system. When the fight or flight system remains activated for long periods of time it can wreak havoc on all of the body's systems and processes. The consequences to a prolonged period in the stress response system are many and varied. Over time, being in the fight or flight system can deplete the adrenal glands leading to adrenal fatigue. When we are in the stress response system our mind-body system shuts down other systems that it deems unnecessary to keep us alive in the moment such as digestion (because you cannot stop to poo when you are running from a lion) and long term memory which can lead to digestive issues and memory issues when we are in this state for prolonged periods of time. In the stress state our muscles stay tense in order to be ready to spring into action, run, or guard us. This is very helpful in the short term but in the long term it can lead to muscle tension, tightness, pain, headaches, migraines, etc. It is difficult to sleep while in the fight or flight system, hard to calm down enough to sleep at all and hard to get into a deep sleep. After all, who sleeps when a lion is chasing them? Also, when the stress system is activated but there is no immediate threat your body is flooded with adrenal and cortisol that it does not need to avoid a dangerous predator, your mind is searching for an attack that is not coming, your heart rate is elevated and your breathing is speeding up, but these responses are not needed. Basically your system prepares to save your life but when there is no threat your system, and probably you too, becomes very confused.
When the system gets confused either from prolonged or too frequent activation, sometimes the system gets stuck in the “on” position. This can also happen when a dangerous situation occurs that triggers the fight or flight system but the person is not able to process through the situation correctly in order to move past it. Whatever the reason, when the stress system gets stuck in the “on” position it can create a lot of problems, some of these problems are the same as when the system is on for too long, but there are additional issues as well.
When the system is stuck on, our mind-body system is constantly searching for danger and is constantly in reaction mode. In the stress response system all our system wants to do is try to get to the next moment, to stay alive, to survive, so we are not able to see the big picture or think about how our actions may affect the future. That means that we are more reactive, and we do things without considering long term consequences. This can have a major impact on our life because we are not making plans for the future, and we will have to live with the consequences of our rash actions and choices. We are also in a state of feeling as if there is danger everywhere or just around the corner and that means that we are unable to relax, be calm, rest, or recharge. In fact, it may feel dangerous to relax or rest, after all who would stop to rest if they were being chased by a lion.
It is possible to bring our system out of fight or flight, however, even when it has been stuck in that position. Like with most things the first step is to realize that is what is happening and to recognize the problem. The next step is to begin to establish safety and security. The more the mind-body system trusts that it is safe, the more it will feel that it is safe to come out of fight or flight. Establishing safety will be a little different for each person, but first and foremost you want to evaluate your life to see if there are any areas that feel threatening or unsafe to you and then work on making changes to those areas first. Then work on establishing security and stability: making sure that you have a safe and stable place to sleep, reliable sources of food, and all other basic needs can be met.
Once there are no actual threats to your safety, you will be able to begin convincing your mind-body system that everything is safe. That means calming your system down. Focusing on your breathing is one way to do this. Your body cannot stay in fight or flight when your breathing is calm and steady. Take slow, deep breaths all the way into your stomach, called belly breathing, and slowly release the breath. Also, parasympathetic breathing, exhaling twice as long as you inhale (breath in for 4 counts and out for 8 counts), is a great way to calm your system. Do this breathing regularly while you are working to turn off the stress response system. Stretching is also effective, as the body cannot stay in fight or flight when your muscles are relaxed, so stretch as often as you can while you are working on turning the system off. Relaxing music, especially at frequencies designed to stimulate the vagus nerve can help to turn off this system as can guided relaxations like the one I have on my website to relax the fight or flight system.
The more you work on calming your mind and body the quicker you will see results. Remember, in the beginning relaxation and rest may feel unsafe because your system is so convinced that you are in danger. Talk yourself through this by reminding yourself that you are safe, that there is no immediate danger, and practicing breathing, stretching, and relaxation will help work through this initial discomfort.