The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived threat, and it prepares us to either confront or flee from the threat by triggering changes including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened senses. This reaction is part of our sympathetic nervous system; whereas, the parasympathetic nervous system involves our rest-and-digest system. These systems are always working in balance so that our bodies effortlessly respond to the environment. Once you escape the threat, our bodies switch into our rest and digest system, lowering our heart rate and allowing our mind to relax. Unfortunately, chronic stress from modern life may constantly send signals to our bodies that we are under threat. This results in us being in constant fight-or-flight mode, dysregulating our nervous system.
Over the years, researchers have come to an understanding of the four common reactions to a perceived threat and termed these responses as: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn. Although we continue to call it the “fight-or-flight” response, it is important to also recognize the freeze and the fawn response. These responses are also associated with reactions to perceived threats and understanding them may help us understand the ways we react to stressors and how to properly regulate our nervous system.
1) Fight: facing any perceived threat aggressively. Your body may be sending signals that tell you it is time to prepare for a physical fight. Some fight responses include: tightening of jaw, teeth grinding, feeling intense anger, desire to attack, and stomach in knots.
2) Flight: running away from danger. You may feel an intense urge to leave situation right away, to run away from the threat. Some flight responses include: feeling fidgety or trapped, restless body, darting eyes.
3) Freeze: unable to move or act against a threat. Like a deer caught in headlights, you may freeze up and not know what to do or say. Some freeze responses include: feeling a sense of dread/hopelessness, feeling stiff/cold/heavy, pounding heart, pale skin.
4) Fawn: immediately acting to please others to avoid any conflict. The fawn response is typically prominent in people who grew up in abusive households, especially those with narcissistic parents. Some fawn responses include: people-pleasing, lack of care for self, not voicing opinions/values, feeling responsible for other people’s emotions.
Here are some ways to tame these responses:
1) Get regular exercise. Exercising consistently has been shown to regulate stress hormone signaling in the brain and increase the level of dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline neurotransmitters.
2) Eat healthy. Eating a balanced, nutrient-rich diet should help you to regenerate nerves, calm stress, and improve your functionality. Some foods that are especially helpful in regulating the nervous system include: leafy greens, whole grains, pumpkin seeds, blueberries, nuts, avocado, and pomegranates.
3) Breathing exercises. Taking deep breathes, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. Start with basic breathwork to release toxins and stress when you breathe out and nourish your mind and body when you take a deep breath in.
4) Seek therapy. Therapy is a great way to learn about regulating your nervous system. You and your therapist can discuss your typical reactions in stressful situations and find ways that work best for you in regulating your nervous system. Skills like those from dialectical behavioral therapy are a great way to help tolerate distress and learn to adjust maladaptive emotional responses that may result from a dysregulated nervous system.
If you are struggling with your reactions to stress and would like to learn more about regulating your nervous system, call to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed therapists here at 253 Therapy and Consult. As always, we are here for you!