The fight or flight response is becoming one of the most talked about things within my Hypnoden. I find it affects everything from fertility, to fears and phobias, birth, weight and of course anxiety or stress; which it causes. Being so aware of the fight or flight response means I really notice it in my day to day life but I am becoming increasingly aware that it is not so obvious to everyone. When anxiety is present it is highly likely that the body is in fight or flight mode. It may be something that is felt permanently, in specific situations or randomly and less regularly. Understanding what the body is trying to do when in this anxious state and finding ways to manage it effectively can eliminate the anxiety for good.
The fight or flight response is a natural instinct that we (and all other animals) are born with. It is a response designed to keep us alive. If our brain senses a threat it triggers the response creating a reaction in the body that helps us to fight or flee so we can stay alive;
“catecholamines (adrenaline and noradrenaline) facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with a preparation for violent muscular action and increased strength and speed in anticipation of fighting or running. These physiological changes include: increased blood flow to the muscles, raised blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars, and fats, increased muscle tension, dilation of pupil, enhanced perspiration and increase the blood clotting function of the body” (Pagano, 2014)
I used to notice my three year old daughter enter the fight or flight response when I took her to preschool. Her rational brain knew that she would enjoy herself, that she is safe, that she has friends etc but in the early days when I said I was leaving her limbic brain would recognise it as a dangerous situation, after all if we were still living a primitive lifestyle a three year old being left by it’s mother would be a very dangerous thing. The brain does not know we are no longer living a primitive life so instantly enters the fight or flight response, at this point a baby or young child will cry. There are many studies that show that when a baby cries there is a response in the brain of the mother; designed to make the mother react;
“During baby‐cry, dopamine may be the first to rise to assist with arousal, motivation and decision‐making circuits, including striatum and amygdala. Oxytocin also rises relatively quickly with hypothalamus brain activity to support milk let‐down and promote parenting behaviours. Cortisol (CORT) increases with a slower time course to support stress responses and prepare the mother for demanding behaviour depending on the reason for baby‐cry and other circumstances” (Swain, 2011)
In the very early days of life the general parental response to a child entering the fight or flight response is a gentle, loving reassuring reaction. Almost everything is in line with the way our body is designed to function in order to stay alive. I would like to emphasise the point here that the brain’s purpose is to keep us alive and the fight or flight response is part of that. Every reaction like this is unconscious and instinctual.
However, as we get older things start to change and this is what I am noticing in my work. Firstly other perceived threats are added to those that are instinctual and our ability to understand our feelings is increased (though it is not always explained to us and therefore not recognised). Other life experiences become perceived dangers or threatening situations to our limbic system and remain in the unconscious. The brain remains on high alert ready to react to these situations quickly and efficiently whenever we encounter them. Cue the super efficient fight or flight response ready to help us stay alive! This is even the case for events that threaten our emotional well being, such as being rejected by a loved one. Here we have a problem because the limbic system can only react as if it were a threat to our physical survival, it wants us to run or fight and gives us the tools to do so, when in reality our survival is not at all threatened. Simply, the limbic part of the brain has related the threat to something that affected us emotionally or physically in the past and reacts in the only way it can. To add to this, the brain cannot differentiate between real and imaginary (Pascual-Leone, 1995) therefore when we are deeply engrossed in something imaginary, such as a film or book, and there is a threatening (emotional or physical) situation the brain may believe it is happening to us and react accordingly.
I would like to list some of the recent client experiences that have resulted in that person living in the fight or flight response;
– Break up with partner
– Work stress
– Unnatural heights (flying, tall buildings, fairground rides)
– Over stimulation
Nothing is probably the most confusing of all, when the person wakes up one morning with the strangest feeling, having had a perfectly normal day the day before, ending up in hospital on heart monitors with a suspected heart attack – only to find out it was an anxiety attack. Maybe something did happen that was only noticed unconsciously, possibly we will never know but hypnotherapy can certainly help to manage the resulting feelings.
A break up with a partner, heights and work stress all seem like perfectly normal reasons to experience anxiety or stress and of course they are. The problem is one often doesn’t recognise the stress or anxiety as the fight or flight response and does not know how to manage it. The resulting feelings can become all consuming and take over life.
Over stimulation is something that many adults are unaware of. Today sensory processing disorder (SPD) and other similar disruptions to “the norm” (whatever that may be) are a big deal;
” Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), exists when sensory signals are either not detected or don’t get organized into appropriate responses… A person with SPD finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks. Motor clumsiness, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school failure, and many other problems may impact those who do not have effective treatment.” (“About SPD”, 2018)
This is something that can affect the life of adults also, leaving the person walking around feeling anxious with no idea why. Some adults will have learnt that whenever they hear a loud noise, for example, they feel affected so can make better informed choices about where they spend time but others will not have made that connection and end up spending much of their life living in a stressed state affected by the external stimuli.
Within my practice I combine trans personal psychology, talking therapy and hypnotherapy to make a movement toward well-being and self-realisation. Understanding the fight or flight response is the first step to recognising when one enters that state. We can then find out when and why this is happening to either eliminate it or work with the body to allow it to be there and then pass as it should. There is research to show that when a risk is familiar or voluntary our body reacts differently (Lupton, 2002) this could be interpreted as feeling in control of the situation. Exploring ways to feel more in control can help move towards a life with less anxiety. Making connections between situations and anxiety, and using hypnosis to bring the body back to an everyday state can all go some way to living a life with less anxiety.
About SPD. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.spdstar.org/basic/about-spd
Lupton, D., & Tulloch, J. (2002). ‘Life would be pretty dull without risk’: voluntary risk-taking and its pleasures. Health, risk & society, 4(2), 113-124.
Pagano, G., Corbi, G., & Ferrara, N. (2014). Adrenergic Nervous System and Hemostasis. Journal of Hematology & Thromboembolic Diseases.
Swain, J. E., Kim, P., & Ho, S. S. (2011). Neuroendocrinology of parental response to baby‐cry. Journal of neuroendocrinology, 23(11), 1036-1041.
Pascual-Leone, A., Nguyet, D., Cohen, L. G., Brasil-Neto, J. P., Cammarota, A., & Hallett, M. (1995). Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. Journal of neurophysiology, 74(3), 1037-1045.