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Anxiety, Stress & Coping
July 25, 2022
Tackle Your Anxiety Using These 4 Steps

A man laying down on the couch while looking up at the ceiling practicing deep breathing.

What Is The Fight-Or-Flight Response And How Can I Turn It Off?

Anxiety is a normal emotion that everybody experiences from time to time. But, too much anxiety can trigger our fight-or-flight response, which is great for fighting off predators but not so helpful for modern-day chronic stressors. Here are a few tips for calming an overactive fight-or-flight response.

What is the fight-or-flight response?

The fight-or-flight response is a reaction marked by physiological changes in the body in response to what we perceive as an acute threat. These physical changes prepare us to react or retreat. The problem is that our bodies still react to cognitive fears as if they were physical threats, and it’s hard to nail a presentation at work when your body is sending you signals to run away or fight your boss.

What happens in the body during a fight-or-flight response?

When we feel extreme anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and our bodies start to produce adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones), which triggers our fight-or-flight response. During the fight or flight response, your body shifts into survival mode, sending extra blood and oxygen to your muscles, heart and brain. That sounds like a good thing, but the physical sensations are not very enjoyable, and may include:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Pounding heart or chest pain
  • Feeling dizzy or unsteady
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or diarrhea

To stop these symptoms, we need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system or the “rest-and-digest'' response. Here’s how to do it.

4 ways to calm your fight-or-flight response

1. Change your body temperature

Changing your body temperature can have a restorative effect and help to trigger the rest-and-digest response you’re looking for. For example, colder temperatures can help you lower that racing heart rate. You can try:

  • Splashing your face with cold water
  • Taking a cold shower
  • Going for a walk outside in cool weather
  • Rubbing an ice cube on your wrists or holding it in your palm

2. Do 15 minutes of intense exercise 

This may seem counterintuitive given that your heart is already racing, but the idea is to release some of that nervous energy and produce endorphins (pain-relieving hormones). To help you burn off some of the adrenaline and cortisol, and replace them with endorphins, try:

  • Doing jumping jacks on the spot
  • Running up and down the stairs
  • Going for a brisk walk around the block
  • Dancing to some high-energy music

3. Practice deep breathing

Deep breathing can help us embrace a calm, cool, and collected mindset. There are many different breathing techniques, so do what works best for you while ensuring that you breathe deeply enough to engage your diaphragm (which sends a message to your brain that you’re okay).

Try this breathing technique:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose for four counts.
  2. Exhale slowly through your mouth for six counts.
  3. Repeat for one or two minutes (or as long as you need).

Try placing one hand on your chest and another on your stomach to check that your stomach is expanding enough to send that message to your brain!

4. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a two-step approach to calming your fight-or-flight response.

Step one involves systematically tensing specific muscle groups in your body and holding for five seconds. Here’s how to do it for each muscle group:

  • Foot (curl your toes downward)
  • Lower leg (tighten your calf muscle by pulling toes towards you)
  • Hand (clench your fist)
  • Buttocks (tighten by pulling your buttocks together)
  • Stomach (suck your stomach in)
  • Chest (tighten by taking a deep breath)
  • Neck and shoulders (raise your shoulders up to touch your ears)
  • Mouth (open your mouth wide enough to stretch the hinges of your jaw)
  • Eyes (clench your eyelids tightly shut)
  • Forehead (raise your eyebrows as far as you can)

Step two involves releasing that tension and noticing how your muscles feel when they’re relaxed. Here, you’re aiming to be loose and limp. Really focus on and notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Stay in a relaxed state for about 15 seconds, then move on to the next muscle group. 

You don’t have to do it alone 

It's hard to feel in control when experiencing intense anxiety because our bodies are telling us to overreact. If you need further support with managing stress and anxiety, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional today.

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