Imagine you are confronted by a lion. What would you do?
You would probably either try to fight off the lion or run away. This is known as the fight or flight response. When we face very real dangers to our physical survival, the fight or flight response is invaluable to escape from danger. During this response, the primitive brain takes over and our intellectual brain is inhibited. We tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival and brain moves into ‘attack’ mode. We often act without really thinking about it.
Today, however, it is rare that our survival is threatened (especially by lions). Rather our stress is the result of contending with rush hour traffic, missing deadlines or having an argument with someone. Unfortunately, when we perceive threat, our brains are unable to distinguish between daily stressors and life threatening situations. Therefore, any event/situation that we perceive as stressful produces activation of our flight or flight system, as if our physical survival was threatened.
In these fight or flight situations, our body automatically produces chemicals like adrenaline, which help you respond quickly. These chemicals change how our body works and causes some of the physical sensations we feel when we are stressed or anxious:
Pounding heart rate and breathing faster: your heart beats faster to pump more blood around your body and carry oxygen to your muscles.
- Tight chest
- Butterflies’ in your stomach
- Feeling faint
- Loss of appetite as your body is prepared for ‘Fight and Flight’ not ‘Rest and Digest’. Blood flow is redirected from the digestive organs to other muscles, which require energy for running and fighting.
- Increased blood pressure
- Dry mouth due to decreased salvia output
- Muscle tension, which can lead to headaches and migraines.
Short term and low level stress can allow us to respond quickly to potentially dangerous situations, perform to our potential, motivate us to carry out tasks and evaluate how safe a something is.
In contrast, long term or high levels of stress can be very detrimental. When it interferes with our ability to do something, or causes us to avoid a situation, it becomes a problem. It can also cause or exacerbate disorders of our autonomic nervous system (causing headaches, IBS and high blood pressure) and disorders of our hormonal and immune systems (creating susceptibility to infection, chronic fatigue, depression and autoimmune diseases).
By recognising the symptoms and signs of being in fight or flight, we can avoid reacting excessively to events and fears that are not life threatening and begin to take steps to manage stress.
There are many ways of activating a relaxation response, which will send out brain chemicals to counteract the fight or flight response. Different methods work for different people so it’s important to try them out and see what works for you.
- Go for a walk
- Try deep breathing exercises
- Talk to someone or spend time with friends/family. Research has shown that having a close, confiding relationship protects you from many stresses.
- Stroke a pet
- Try to get enough sleep- generally 8 hours a night.
- Try aromatherapy
- Make a list of everything you’re worried about. Try to identify what’s worrying you the most and brainstorm ways of dealing with it.
- Draw or paint
- Learn to just say, “No” occasionally. It won’t hurt other people’s feelings as much as you think and is simply a method to be more assertive in your own life, to better help you meet your own needs.
- Take a bath
- Watch cute/funny videos on youtube
- Make a to-do list
- Avoid using nicotine/drugs/alcohol/caffeine, as these will make you feel better in the short term but worse in the long term.
- Watch a film
- Think what you would tell your friend if they were feeling like this.
- Clear out the clutter in your room.
- Make a list of things you’ve accomplished this week
- Look through old photos.
- Try not to over-generalize negative events e.g. getting a low mark on one test and thinking ‘I’m useless at everything’.
- Find something that makes you laugh
- Try yoga or meditation
- Make a list of everything you have to look forward to
- Try reflexology
- Listen to music
- Set aside some time each day to work on relaxation
- Try to make a plan for how to cope in stressful situations in advance eg job interviews
- Read a book
- Write a letter or email to someone
- Try progressive muscle relaxation
- Try visualisation or guided imagery: Sit quietly with your eyes closed, imagining the sights, sounds and smells of your favourite place, such as a beach or mountain retreat.