Anyone who has suffered from anxiety or panic attacks will undoubtedly have heard of the fight-or-flight response. It’s a rush of adrenalin you get that prepares your body to flee a dangerous scenario or stay and defend yourself. So how can we use the psychology of fight-or-flight response to our advantage?
The Origins of the Fight-or-Flight Response
Our distant ancestors benefited enormously from the fight-or-flight response. They needed a quick reaction to survive the many dangers they had to face, on a daily basis. The problem is, in the modern world, fortunately, we rarely come across situations in which we need to stay and fight or run away.
But this throwback from our ancestors is still present in some of us, myself included. So why do we still have this response and why does it overreact in some people? Before we answer these questions, let’s first examine the psychology of fight-or-flight response.
The Psychology of Fight-or-Flight Response
As I mentioned before, our ancestors needed to be able to react quickly to the dangers of their world. In fact, the fight-or-flight response is a reaction to stress. It is the way the body reacts to something we find frightening.
For example, imagine you are asleep at night, alone in your house and you are woken by the sound of shattering glass. Someone is breaking into your house. Your brain knows that you now have a choice; go and confront the intruder or run away. Your brain instantly prepares your body to do both.
How does it do this? It all starts in the amygdala, the oldest part of our brain.
What happens in the body when the fight-or-flight response is triggered?
- When we perceive a threat, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the part of our brain that controls the nervous system. The nervous system is responsible for all our bodily functions, such as heartbeats, breathing, sweating and blood pressure.
- The nervous system begins by flooding the body with adrenaline. This increase in adrenaline forces our heart to beat faster, it pushes blood to the heart, lungs and limbs. This is to prepare us for the oncoming danger. It also takes blood away from nonessential organs such as the stomach.
- As more blood is being pumped around the body, we receive additional oxygen, which increases our senses. The little sacs in our lungs expand to increase our capacity for breathing. We are more alert, our pupils widen, taking in more light, and our hearing is sensitised.
- The extra adrenalin also triggers the release of glucose and fats from reserves in our body. This gives us more energy. All this energy and adrenalin can cause us to shake or tremble.
- We might start to sweat. This is a flight response that has evolved to help us slip away and escape the clutches of someone who wants to harm us.
So now we know what the physiology and psychology of fight-or-flight are all about, but what happens when it gets out of control? How can we use this valuable resource when it is causing us anxiety and panic for no reason?
How to control the fight-or-flight response
As someone who has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for most of my life, I am always looking for ways to calm the fight-or-flight response in me. But recently I had a couple of experiences where I managed to control the flood of adrenalin. Here’s what happened:
I had to undergo an MRI recently and as someone who doesn’t like being trapped, this was causing me some concern. As I went into the MRI machine, I felt the usual rise of panic start. The consultant told me I had to be in there for 20 minutes.
Whenever I start feeling panicky, it always begins with me saying to myself, “I can’t get out, I’m trapped, I need to get out.” This time, I decided to talk to myself logically instead of fuelling the panic. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I could get out easily if I wanted to, but all I had to do was lie there for 20 minutes. The panic subsided and I managed to stay until the session was over.
The second time I felt panicky was in a hospital for an operation. I’d had the op and it was night-time and I had been sleeping. I awoke and for a few minutes didn’t know where I was. The rise of adrenalin kicked in and as I moved I felt the cannula and catheter trapping me in the bed. I couldn’t physically leave without damaging myself.
Again, I thought logically. What was the point of trying to leave and get home to safety? I had just had a major operation and was in the best place for my recovery. Again, all I had to do was stay where I was. Before I knew it a nurse was waking me to take observations.
How to control and use adrenalin
Those were breakthrough moments for me. Knowing that the rise of adrenalin can be controlled somewhat. So how can we use the psychology of fight or flight in real life? Particularly those that suffer from anxiety and panic?
Adrenalin represents excitement
I saw on TV once a therapist talking to a client and saying that people experience adrenalin in all kinds of situations, one example is when they are excited. Imagine your wedding day or the start of your holiday; your heart would be beating faster, your breathing would be rapid, you might be trembling a little or feel flushed.
Sounds familiar? It’s all adrenalin, that same hormone that fuels your panic, but seen from a different perspective it can represent something else. So, the next time you feel the rush of adrenalin, try and link it to a memory where you were excited instead.
Talk logically, don’t feed the anxiety
It’s very easy to wind yourself up and fuel the adrenalin, but remember, you are in control of what you think and say to yourself. You don’t have to make the situation worse by scaring yourself.
You might think that when you are panicking your thoughts are automatic, but they are not. You choose to think about what you do and, therefore, you can stop. Instead of making the situation worse, look at it logically and ask yourself:
- Am I actually in danger?
- What exactly am I afraid of?
- Why do I feel like running away?
- What would happen if I just stayed here instead?
Thoughts can’t hurt you
I learned this through CBT therapy recently. My panic always starts with a thought, usually something like, “Oh my god, I’m going to die/have a heart attack/faint/embarrass myself/be ill.” But you know what? Even if I think those things, those thoughts will never hurt me. They are just that – thoughts. And you can choose not to think them.
The fight-or-flight response has been around since the dawn of man, but we are only just learning about the psychology of it. I think the important thing to remember is that in the right circumstances, it’s extremely useful. It is when it gets out of control that we need to curb it.
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