How to Interrupt Anxiety by Turning off the Fight-or-Flight Response

Updated: Mar 30

By Laura Notton RSW, MSW

My client walks in the room, she scans her surroundings and perches on the edge of the sofa. It is our first session. I introduce myself and ask why she is seeking therapy at this time. She tells me that she feels feel anxious all the time but does not know why.

This can be frustrating, to say the least, for some people and if left untreated, anxiety becomes chronic and debilitating.

So what do we mean when we say we feel anxious?

Anxiety is both an emotion and a bodily felt experience. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is: “An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure” (1). Often when we are feeling anxious, we start to feel edgy, our thoughts are racing, and we unknowingly start to brace our bodies and hold our breath. Other symptoms of anxiety can include: a decrease in concentration, trouble controlling our reactions, headaches, stomach pains, problems sleeping and an overall sense of impending dread (2).

In short, feeling anxious can abruptly hijack us from the present moment.

The Fight-or-Flight response reaction is the operating system underneath those anxious feelings. The Fight-or-Flight is the body’s built-in survival mechanism that is activated when your brain thinks you may be danger. (3) Most likely, the Fight-or-Flight response was developed to keep us from being eaten by predators thousands of years ago. The amygdala is the part of the brain that acts as our internal alarm system and is located in our reptilian brain. Once the “amygdala alarm” goes off, the body instantaneously prepares for action, Fight-or-Flight.

The problem is that our amygdala doesn’t always assess the situation correctly and can have trouble making the distinction between real and perceived threat. It may process a presentation at work, or an argument with your partner, the same way it would if a lion was approaching you.

For an array of different reasons, some people have a more sensitive Fight-or-Flight response. However, a stressful workplace, a toxic boss, unhealthy relationships, illness, and care-giving for others; the temperaments we are born with and unresolved trauma can cause the Fight-or-Flight to get turned on too often and for too long. Finally, we live in a ridiculously fast paced and overly plugged-in society that is simply stressing us out.

We may not understand exactly how stress is slowing building up in our lives and are unaware that our Fight-or-Flight response is being activated too much until we feel strung out, irritable and exhausted.

But the good news is we can learn how to interrupt the Fight-or-Flight Response and turn down arousal. The first step is to acknowledge yourself that you are feeling overwhelmed. There is simply no shame in acknowledging what you’re experiencing. In fact, acknowledging those feelings and paying attention to your body in the moment is the first step to turning off Fight-or-Flight Response.

Try paying attention to the first, tiny signals of increased arousal in your body. For example, you may feel pressure in your chest, or the volume of your voice may increase, or perhaps your thinking is going into overdrive; already your body is giving you signals and information you can use. The moment your arousal starts to rise on the inside is when you want to ground yourself back into the present moment by using your own body. Something as simple as deep belly breaths can help to reduce arousal and turn down the Fight-or-Flight response. Other techniques may involve using one or two of the five senses to calm your body and bring you back to the present moment. Drawing on these techniques comes in handy when performance or social anxiety is looming. Ultimately, we have to be able to quieten the Fight-or-Flight response before rational thought is possible.

As well, certain activities help to turn off the Fight-or-Flight and reduce overall stress. The more time we engage in these activities, the more our bodies learn it is safe to relax and be calm. Activities such as: regularly exercise, yoga, working on a creative project, listening or making music, singing, mediation, therapy, writing, massage, travel and being with others who make us feel happy and settled. Moreover, removing things that increase stress such as being too attached to our phones, drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, overworking, and avoiding people who activate our Fight-or-Flight response can make a world of difference.

Finally, can you notice when you are getting stuck in worrying, have you just spent 25 minutes ruminating on something you can’t change? When this is the case, turn to yourself with compassion, i.e. acknowledge that this situation worries you and then deliberately go about interrupting this ruminating by either using a grounding technique or engaging in a stress reducing activity.

What’s Next?

Please book with me to learn more about these techniques and other tools for feeling less anxious.

Or you can also join my Stress Reduction Workshop that I am running at Darou Wellness for the month of November (November 9th, 23rd and 30th). Click here to learn more information about this event and how to sign up!

References

  1. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/323454.php

  2. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/anxiety

  3. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

  4. https://www.verywellmind.com/tips-to-reduce-stress-3145195

Disclaimer

Please note that content on this website is intended for informational purposes only, and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional, not is it meant to diagnose or treat a health problem, symptom or disease. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read on this website. Information provided on this website DOES NOT create a doctor-patient relationship between you and any doctor affiliated with our website.

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