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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 re