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Anxiety and Fight or Flight

Updated: Jul 7, 2019

I deal with anxiety a lot in my practice because people are dealing with it a lot in their lives these days, so I wanted to say a few words about the Fight or Flight response, and particularly as it relates to anxiety, stress, tension, worry, that type of thing.

From what I’ve been finding from working with people is that a lot of times people think of the Fight or Flight response as an extreme reaction to extreme situations, possibly something very threatening like illness, injury, death, things at that level of severity. They’re surprised to find out that it’s not just the extreme circumstances that put us into Fight or Flight, it’s usually the normal things that happen to us on a daily basis, and maybe all day long.

So a lot of these same people who come in suffering from anxiety and tension, and can’t focus, can’t sleep well, or are just generally pretty stressed out are surprised when I help them see that their body spends a lot of time in a state of Fight or Flight. They’re not usually in serious danger, but they’re still in Fight or Flight as though they were in danger.

The problem with that is that our bodies are designed to go into Flight temporarily to deal with a threat, but then come back out of Fight or Flight once that threat is dealt with and we are once again safe. They weren’t designed to be in Fight or Flight all day long. So thinking in terms of primitive man, the cavemen went into Fight or Flight when they encountered a saber tooth tiger, and their body was thus better prepared to Fight it or run from it. Once they either killed it or made it safely away from it they were able to relax, come back out of Fight or Flight, and safely enjoy the comforts of their cave. This is normal.

What’s not normal is to stay in Fight or Flight for long periods of time, which is what seems to be happening in our modern society. We live in such a fast-paced society with so much to do and so many options for filling our time and so many things to accomplish that sometimes we go into Fight or Flight right when we wake up, roll over and check our phone for our emails, the news (which is its own trauma and source of anxiety), politics (which is an even worse idea), our to-do list, and we might never actually come back out of Fight or Flight, possibly even until we hit the pillow again later that night. We might not realize it but we could be in Fight or Flight all day long, and that could be where a lot of our anxiety is coming from.

So as part of stress management I like to help people see that their body is in Fight or Flight, and that this is why they are experiencing anxiety. We go over what’s happening in their mind but also in their body while they are in that state. Since it’s not just a mind thing but also a body thing, I like to treat both in different ways to help people manage their Fight or Flight systems so they can decrease and manage their anxiety.

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