christmas can remind us of loss

Fight or flight – understanding how your body responds to stress

2 December 2023

Are you feeling a bit stressed or overwhelmed right now.  Have the Christmas holidays created additional demands on your time and energy?  It’s a time of year when life seems to get even busier with more planning to do, events to attend and presents to buy.  Much as you may enjoy this time of year (and many people don’t), it can be normal to find it a stressful time of year.

We all experience times of stress, and it doesn’t feel good. Our thoughts race, our hearts race, muscles tense, mouths get dry and we get nausea and butterflies in the stomach.  This is the body’s fight or flight response kicking in. When we sense a threat, we tense up, ready to fight or run away. Its not something we decide, our body decides for us.

This may happen to you when you think about Christmas.  Maybe you worry about creating a perfect Christmas for everyone, or how you are going to manage all those people on the day.  Whatever you are worrying about, your body experiences stress about Christmas in the same way as if we were facing a physical threat.

You can find out more about how to help with feelings of overwhelm here

worry can take over

Fight or flight?

The fight or flight response developed through centuries of evolution, programming the brain to respond to danger to increase the chances of survival. In prehistoric times, we needed quick bursts of energy to fight or escape from predators such as lions, tigers and bears.

The fight or flight response is what allows us to respond quickly in stressful situations such as when a child runs out in front of a car or if we were to find an intruder in our house. Apart from these exceptional (and rare) circumstances, most of us don’t have much call for these emergency responses in everyday lives.

The fight or flight response is like an oversensitive alarm clock going off whenever it senses danger. It can’t distinguish between an actual threat such as a tiger, or a perceived threat such as a trying to get everything right for Christmas, a painful memory or worry about the future. It treats both the same; tensing the body and preparing for action. The mind interprets the tension in the body as a threat, tensing even more in response.  

Mind-body connection

Sometimes, the body will go back to normal on its own, once it has sensed the threat is over. At other times, the feelings of stress, fatigue and low mood remain and nothing seems to get rid of them. The mind has automatically switched to full alert but hasn’t switched off again as it is meant to do.

As the fight or flight response kicks in, the mind begins to trawl through its memory bank of experiences to explain these feelings. If we are feeling stressed or in danger, our mind digs up memories of when we felt like this in the past and uses the imagination to create scenarios of what may happen in the future. The good news is the same mechanism that turns the stress response on, can also turn it off.

As soon as the brain decides the situation is no longer dangerous, it stops sending out emergency signals which stops panic signals being delivered to the nervous system. It only takes three minutes from shutting off the danger signals for the fight or flight response to burn out. Then the metabolism, heart rate, breathing rate, muscle tension and blood pressure all return to their normal rate. This natural restorative response is known as the relaxation response.

Help for stress

When I work with stressed and anxious clients, we work together to change the thoughts, feelings and behaviour that cause stress. I show clients how to tune into their body and mind so they can stop stress in its tracks.  Clients learn to understand the fight or flight response and how to harness it in a way that helps them. Going at the client’s pace, I take care to support them to develop the skills they need to make changes.  I help clients learn to manage stress by developing coping and problem solving techniques and ways to manage their thoughts, feelings and moods.  We work together to develop self confidence and the ability to cope, no matter what life has in store.     relaxation response counteracts stress


Try my three ways to help you to activate your body’s relaxation response and have a calmer Christmas, right now.

1. Use your breath

Practice calming breathing to help reduce the physical sensations, emotions and intensity of thoughts triggered by the fight or flight response. Deep breathing helps to calm us and stimulates the relaxation response. Take a few deep breaths – breathing in to a count of 7 , and out to a count of 11. With practice, this will help you to feel calmer and more in control. For more on breathing, take a look at how-to-relax-in-just-five-minutes.

2. Harness your imagination

Use your imagination to prepare yourself in advance for situations that cause you stress. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the situation, going into as much detail as possible. Take a deep breath and relax away all the tension. Now imagine feeling calm and relaxed as you cope with the situation. For more ways to use your imagination to combat stress take a look at creating-calm-uncertain-world.

3. Practice self-hypnosis

Hypnosis allows you to experience positive thoughts and images as if they are real. Self-hypnosis has been proven to be clinically effective for treating anxiety and for improving relaxation. You can download a free self-hypnosis MP3 from my website. 

Would you like to make living life easier, right now? Get your free Live Life on Your Terms recording here and begin to live your life with confidence.

If you’re struggling with your mental health over the festive period contact MIND or the Samaritans for help.

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