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Stress: Fight or Flight Response

Written By: Curtis Dueck, Registered Clinical Counsellor

One of the most common reasons people seek out a clinical counsellor is because of their experience of feeling overwhelmed in various situations. Anxiety, addiction, trauma; are many of the concerns people bring to counselling. There may be an element of feeling as if our fear or stress will consume us. We try to do something with this feeling, either covering it up or expressing it in an attempt to nullify the discomfort we are in. The problem for most clients is that those methods of covering up or expression tend to have negative consequences attached, like the avoidance of important things in our life or hurting the people that are close to us. Additionally, there is never any resolution to the stress, and every time a similar situation comes up in life, it feels like we are cursed to have the same unhelpful response every time.

Most of the time people are scared or angry about this response they continue to have. They often want to make the feeling go away so that they don’t have to deal with the negative outcomes. However, there is a different way to deal with this experience of feeling overwhelmed, one that helps us work through those feelings and come to a resolution rather than avoiding them for now just to have them come back worse in the future.

Research has shown that our brain and our central nervous system are built to react in a very specific way to perceived threats. When the amygdala, the part of our brain that is always monitoring our environment and our own body for danger, senses a threat, it sends an emergency signal to many different parts of our body. Our heart begins to beat faster, our muscles tense up, we might get a tingly feeling in our body as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our bloodstream, we become hyper focused on the threat, start to sweat, our mouth gets dry, we begin to feel nauseous; these are all symptoms of our body’s emergency response system, commonly called the Fight or Flight Response.

Now the fact that might be surprising to some people is that this response is actually a good thing! When we are faced with a threat like coming across a bear in the woods, the Fight or Flight response equips us to face the problem. All of the symptoms are part of our body delivering energy to our muscles in order to react with more speed and strength than usual, as well as shutting down any functions that won’t help us deal with the immediate threat. In nature, when we’re faced with a disaster, this is an incredibly helpful resource to empower us as humans to survive danger.

There are times in modern life, however, where we run into problems when the Fight or Flight response comes online. If we have a significant fear response to something common, like doing our homework in school, and we engage in avoidance behaviours such as procrastinating, using substances, or even distracting ourselves with socializing, we reinforce to our primal threat-detection system in the brain that homework is a dangerous thing that we don’t have the resources to face. So the next time we have a Fight or Flight response to homework, it is going to be a little stronger because of the last piece of information it got, which was “homework is very dangerous, so dangerous that we couldn’t face it last time”. When we repeat this pattern over and over again, we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of coping: we end up with three overdue assignments, which creates even more stress, so we avoid talking to our teacher or professor about the missing assignments, and on and on. Unfortunately this also applies to more serious situations: if I have an abusive parent that I can’t escape, I might try to cope with the overwhelming stress by shutting down or believing that its my fault, and I carry those behaviours and beliefs into adulthood. If I’m in a car accident and feel completely out of control and overwhelmed, whether it is a 10-car pileup or just a fender-bender, I might develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress where each time I get behind the wheel my body feels as stressed as it did at the time of the accident.

So when we get stuck in a chronic Fight or Flight response, what can we do? One of the first keys is learning how to bring the overwhelming feelings down, not by avoidance or expression, but by actually calming our mind and body. When we use tools like deep breathing, progressive relaxation, and autogenics we learn to manually change our physical, mental and emotional state! If we can identify what it feels like to be calm and relaxed, we can actually induce this feeling just by thinking about it. It takes time and practice, but we can learn turn down the volume on our fight or flight symptoms when they show up. Once we bring them down to a manageable level, we have the opportunity to change how we deal with whatever threat we are facing. First and foremost, we can start this new response with an acknowledgement that our stress response:

1) is a good thing and

2) isn’t going to kill us just because its uncomfortable.

Then we can learn to listen to what our stress response is telling us: what is it about this situation that feels threatening? What am I afraid is going to happen? In what way do I believe I’m not equipped to deal with the threat? Once we’ve gathered the information we are receiving from our Fight or Flight response, we then get to evaluate what we would like to do. How would I like to respond? What would be the course of action I would be most satisfied with? What kind of outcome will be helpful for those around me too? Now, instead of avoiding the feelings or using expression to reduce tension, we can act to work through a situation and the stressful feelings that accompany it. We teach ourselves that we do have what it takes to overcome what we perceive as threatening, and in doing so we can begin to move through life (including all of the challenges that will inevitably come our way) with more awareness, more freedom to choose, and more compassion both for others and for ourselves.

Our counsellors can help you in the process of navigating stress, anxiety, addictions, depression and many other mental health concerns. If you would like to book an appointment with Curtis give Cheam Wellness Group a call at 604-776-2432 or check out our online booking page

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