Fight, flight or freeze? Which one is your go-to reaction to stress and anxiety?
In our pressurised lives and busy, over-stimulating culture each and every day our body and mind is constantly bombarded with physical, emotional and mental stimuli – information, time demands, unexpected events…
Whether it’s constant deadlines, an over-flowing email inbox, an over-bearing boss, the daily commute, hearing your child is ill at nursery, looking after ageing parents, hearing/reading about injustice and violence in the news.
And add to this the more nebulous psycho-social pressures and fears which gnaw away about the state of the economy, your finances, your job, losing your home, fear of missing out, comparing your life with others’ …
… all of these provoke a stress response from your body.
And if you’re particularly sensitive to your surroundings and what’s going on around you and find it difficult to relax and unwind then your body’s stress response will more quickly tip you into feeling overwhelmed … and keep you there.
The body’s stress response
Whatever the cause of the stress the body has the same response.
It’s a deeply ingrained life-protecting reaction of complex hormonal, neurological and physical processes.
It’s what kept us safe from those sabre-toothed tigers in the dim and distant human past … but your body and mind still react in the same way.
The response is to fight, run away or become immobile: the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Every time you face a stressor a surge of stress chemicals cascade through the body sending blood to the muscles, increasing your heart rate to allow you to fight or run away.
Trouble is, the overflowing email inbox, the demanding boss, the conflicts at work or the demands of your family are always there – you can’t deal with them as ancient (wo)man did; you can’t run away, you can’t slay the threat, and you can’t become immobile so the threat doesn’t see you and moves on.
This constant (low) level of stress leads to the brain signalling the release of the hormone cortisol.
And the constant presence of cortisol in your body can lead to headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, digestive problems, problems sleeping, anxiety, restlessness, agitation, anger, lack of libido and depression.
So, we need interventions to help our body to deal with the stress response and techniques for the mind to become less reactive to stressful stimuli.
How do YOU respond to stress?
I’ve already referred to the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
It’s really worthwhile holding up a mirror to yourself and identifying which of these is your body/mind’s usual response to stress and anxiety.
Why? Because this will help you identify practical measures to relieve stress and to be proactive in preventing a strong stress response in the first place.
Are you a fighter?
When faced with a stressful situation do you feel the urge to fight through it?
Maybe you get angry and irritable and snappy. Maybe you blame others for the situation. Maybe you verbalise this frustration and pick arguments with those around you. Or maybe you turn the anger inwards and get frustrated and down on yourself.
The fight could take the form of pushing yourself on, pushing through it, not allowing yourself to process and deal with what’s going on – in effect fighting against the message your body and mind is giving you.
Do you get the urge to run away?
This response might take the form of denial in a kind of “la-la-la I’ve got my fingers in my ears I’m not admitting this is happening” and disassociating from the situation – a kind of mental running away. You won’t face up to the situation.
Or you may feel like you literally need to run away. To run for your life as far as you can in the opposite direction from whatever is causing you stress.
And if can’t physically put distance between you and the stressful stimulus / stimuli then this exacerbates the stress response.
Do you freeze?
When dealing with stress and anxiety perhaps you freeze: you get rooted to the spot.
You feel unable to run away and unable to confront the situation. Your body tenses. Your breath gets shallow. You don’t know what to do. Your heart is beating like a drum, your palms are sweating and your mind goes at a million miles an hour but you can’t move or can’t deal with the situation leading to chronic tension, feeling completely disempowered.
Stress relief techniques from the yoga toolkit
Of course, different situations may lead to different responses but you may have a tendency to react in on particular way.
I know from experience that my tendency is to freeze. My nervous system feels jangled, my body is tense and anxious, my breathing becomes shallow and my mind gets in a stress-loop of disempowering and fretful thoughts.
So, the following techniques aim to take you out of your nervous system’s “fight, flight or freeze” response and to activate the nervous system’s “rest, digest and heal” response; to reduce the stress hormones in your system and to calm body and mind.
Stress-relief techniques for the FIGHTER
You may benefit from movement – go for a walk and stamp it out to get the adrenaline and cortisol levels down.
Shake your body out – shake your hands, arms, legs, twist from side to side.
You may feel drawn to something more vigorous such as Sun Salutations to get the anger and frustration shifting and releasing.
Get the anger out of your body and mind and then slow down. Take long steady, calming breaths. Try counted breathing: breathe in for a silent count of four and out for a silent count of four.
Rest in Crocodile Pose and breathe deeply to learn to calm your body and mind.
Know that you are calm and you can cope. You can find strength in stillness; in listening; in loving.
Stress-relief techniques for the RUNNER
If you’re mentally disassociating from your situation because you can’t physically run away then you may benefit from being still and coming into your body.
Try Mountain Pose and really feel into your legs and your feet into the strong support of the ground beneath you.
Or bend the knees to come into Chair Pose – either with your hands at the heart or arms lifted above you. Activate the thigh muscles.
Or for more strength and willpower perhaps Warriors will feed your soul.
Know you are strong and capable. You are brave. You can face what life brings you.
Stress-relief techniques for the FREEZER
I find gentle movement helps me. Anything too active or strong sends my anxiety levels soaring.
Try the Earth Sequence to start moving – it will also help you to breathe more deeply and smoothly. Steady breaths send a strong signal to the brain that all is well.
And grounding meditations/visualisations may also benefit you. This may sound counter-intuitive because you already feel frozen to the spot, but feeling into the support of a strong nurturing earth and help you to feel safe and secure and that it’s OK to move.
Know you are safe and secure. You can trust yourself. You can speak up. You are perfect as you are.
Listen in to the innate intelligence of your body / mind and let it tell you what it needs.
The longer-term and negative effects of stress and anxiety on the body come from not addressing what you need.
OK, maybe you can’t fight it out, run away or stay rooted to the spot in the hope that the stressor will disappear.
But you can look within to know yourself and take positive steps to help your body and mind deal with the stress and soothe, calm and heal yourself.