fight or flight body's response to stress

Fight or Flight – understanding how your body responds to stress

2 April 2018

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.

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 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.

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.

Try using the tips below to activate your body’s relaxation response.        relaxation response counteracts stress

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.

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.

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. Contact me for a copy of my free relaxation self-hypnosis MP3.

Click here to book your free telephone consultation and find out how I can help you conquer stress.

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