The Flight Response (Pt 2 Stress Response Series)
Flight, the most the most commonly understood of the stress-responses, is essentially the best response of getting you as far away from danger as possible. You might know it well if you've ever watched a scary movie and you see individuals actively running as far away from the predator as possible. Sometimes they are able to clear danger, and sometimes they are not.
While we mainly think of flight as a way of escaping the clasps of a threat, we also can broaden our understanding and see how it is often used as a preventative measure. Let me explain. I've had a rabbit for the last ten years. Some rabbits can be very cuddly if raised by you from a young age. Unfortunately, we got our rabbit when he was a year old, a little past the time of socialization. His personality isn't too keen on warming up and snuggling up with others. So he tends to stay in his cage and take treats, but that's the extent of warming up to you. When out of his cage, he tends to hop on over to hide underneath the couch or table, or find a way back in his cage, where he essentially feels quite safe. Dilbert is not fighting, he's not freezing, or fainting, and he's definitely not fawning! He's fleeing, essentially the other term for flight. He is avoiding interaction and he hides where he feels safe in his quite enlarged space of a cage. He's honestly happy there and because he's happy and feels safe, he doesn't want anything to do with the world outside of his zone.
Dilbert is like a lot of us. He flees what he doesn't like and he avoids what he's not interested in, what is suspicious and does not feel comfortable to him. Flight isn't just about getting away from danger, it's avoiding it altogether, and when you think of it, many of us are very good at avoiding what we don't like and don't feel safe around.
Flight seeks what is safe and comfortable. Flight is skeptical of new things. Flight is avoidant of stressful situations. Flight makes us private. Flight even is our tendency to avoid thinking of or remembering things we don't like. Flight is a tool our nervous response has to say, "I don't want any part of that."
Think about it, you're a deer in the wild and you smell something unusual around an area you're used to grazing. Not wanting to get caught up in a dangerous situation, you and the rest of the herd turn a different direction to find somewhere else to graze, something that feels safer. The same thing is going through our minds when we have a task to complete such as a homework assignment. While it would be proactive to finish it ahead of time so you can review your work the night before, if we don't like the homework assignment or find it complicated, the more normal response is to avoid it until the last minute, or even past the deadline! Our brains just simply don't want to participate in something that doesn't feel good or that causes any sort of stress. The problem comes down to when we let procrastination take over or beat ourselves up for avoiding, we really aren't doing ourselves any favors. While it is obvious that the more proactive and less stressful thing to do is to get the task done ahead of time, but our limbic system hasn't yet evolved to see this. Our limbic system instead sees what is imminently stressful, making avoidance, flight, our more automatic response.
When Trauma Over-activates the Flight Response
As you get to know the the nervous system and its many adapted responses to stress and danger, you'll find that it can often respond to small or more significant stimuli. The general rule is when we have been through major traumatic events, your nervous system becomes more adept at responding to responding to small stresses. This is because the brain has picked up on how your environment has not felt safe, therefore making it easy to overreact to what seem at times like small things. You can thank the amygdala for this. The amygdala is a part of your brain that has a major role in your limbic (nervous) system. It essentially detects danger and sends cues to the rest of your limbic system that you need to take action. Think of it like a fire alarm, when it smells smoke, it's going to make sure that your body does what it needs to react to the suspected source of danger, even if it's just leaving the water boiling on the stove for too long.
We also don't have to have necessarily had traumatic childhoods to have this flight response. It could be regularly hearing through the news of dangerous events happening in the world, having a sense that the world is not safe or we cannot protect ourselves, or not feeling confident enough to do something on your own. Flight is about getting away from danger and that danger can be something life-threatening or simply something that makes us feel insecure.
When your world has felt unsafe, generally the flight response is to turn on a sense of hypervigilance, being more aware of your surroundings, being on the lookout for anything that seems suspicious, and to keep your guard up. If you feel less confident in protecting yourself from danger or being able to accomplish a task, sense of flight takes hold by avoiding things that bring up that insecurity, not asking for help, and anxiety. It might also look like always worrying about the stressor but never taking action on it, essentially keeping an eye on the source of danger but never going near it because of the perceived threat.
Getting to Know Your Flight Response
Here are some examples:
Increase in heart rate. Adrenaline rush.
Numbness in hands, feet, arms, and legs.
Feeling the world close in on you
High blood pressure.
Difficulty gaining or losing weight.
Impact on gut health. IBS.
Lowered immune system.
Ongoing tension in your body
Sense of being powerless
Feeling on high alert. Hypervigilance. Hyper-focused.
Avoidant of situations such as big spaces or crowded places.
Soothing with unhealthy behaviors (sugar consumption, consumption of alcohol, over-exercising, binge-watching television, compulsive gaming).
Nail-biting, hair-pulling, skin-picking.
Taming the Hijacked Flight Response
If your life is a lot calmer than it was in your childhood or young adulthood, dealing with some of the symptoms of an over-active flight system might at times be frustrating. But as frustrated as you might get with your body and your stress response, that frustration is only going to do the opposite of what you want, ignite your stress response and therefore increase your symptoms.
Luckily there are a few tricks that you can have up your sleeve when you notice your heart rate increasing or your breathing becoming more shallow, or any of the other symptoms before. Your body, just as it is wired to get stressed to make it more easy to take action, your body is also wired to calm itself so that it can properly function in your normal life by resting, eating, playing, relaxing, and sleeping. But your body needs to be aware that it is time to do those things and that means it is going to need some help from your prefrontal cortex, the top brain that is logical and aware and can help calm your nervous system if it is over-activated.
Calming the Flight Response
Breathing. I know, maybe you haven't heard of slowing down your breath can help, or maybe you've heard it repeatedly and your eyes just rolled in the back of your head. But honestly, there's too much research to show it's benefit, that it can't be discounted. It's not necessarily about breathing in one particular way, but finding a way to guide your breathe to calm down your body. In fact, research has shown that the one thing to reverse the stress response into a calm response is to slow down your breathing.
A) Notice the current pacing of your breath. B) Release all the tension you're holding in your body by having one big, strong exhale, letting out a big sigh as though your body were emptying all that pent up energy. C) Once you've let out a few sighs, as many as you need, start to lengthen your exhale and your inhale. It might help to sit or lay down so that your body can feel the earth beneath it. D) Continue breathing as long as you need until you start to feel more settled. If your energy and tension were extra high, you might suddenly start to feel tired. If you're able to, let yourself get some rest that your body might be needing.
Grounding. Grounding, also known as earthing, and center, essentially are prompts to help your body find its own calm. There are I imagine hundreds of grounding techniques that I cannot fully list here, but I'll mention a couple. Sitting on the ground, feeling the earth beneath you, rubbing your hands on your knees. Closing your eyes, taking a deep breath. Keeping your eyes open, looking around the room, noticing everything around you that is blue (or green, or brown or purple). Putting a cold object on your forehead, especially between the eyes. Wrapping a blanket around your shoulders. Holding a pet that likes to comfort you, feeling their heartbeat next to your's. Being next to plants or outside.
Relaxing activities. Slowly drinking a cup of hot tea, playing with a child or pet. Taking a nap. Disconnecting from smart-devices. Cooking something slowly and following a recipe to do so (only if this is going to be relaxing and not stressful). Singing a calming song. Painting. Yoga. Working in your shop. Going for a walk. Writing in a journal.
Orienting yourself to the present time. This is actually a technique that many therapists like to use for those who are actively having flashbacks or who feel disoriented. It combines grounding but emphasizes safety in the present. Orienting to present time is essentially like grounding, but stronger and necessary if your body isn't trusting it is safe. While you can do it on your own, if you have someone near you who can help, this skill might be more effective. That's because when stress is high enough, our upper brain tends to go off-line, making it difficult to even verbalize our thoughts, and having someone bring you back to present will work better.
Start with telling yourself you're okay, you're in a safe place. Look at your hands and feet. Notice that they might be bigger than how you really feel (potentially small). Look at your jewelry such as a ring or watch, something you didn't have on when you were younger or went through something traumatic. Notice your hair by feeling it with your hands, notice that it might be longer or shorter than how you had it when you were younger. Look in a mirror and notice you're at a different age. Look through photos on your phone of all the new memories have (it is often normal that the frightful memory you're reliving is not connected to the positive, good memories you also have). Look around the room and ask yourself if it is the same room or place that you were in when you were younger. (If it is, I suggest you go to a different place, because your body is not going to feel safe there). Remind yourself of all the new loving, safe, caring, and kind people you have in your life now including friends, family, loved ones from church, kind coworkers, friendly neighbors, pets. And tell yourself that the negative scary experience that happened before is over, whether it's been six years, six months, six weeks, six hours, or five minutes since it happened!
Don't get frustrated with yourself or your symptoms.
Don't increase your stress more by watching intense and stressful media such as news channels or crime shows. While this is your nervous system ultimately trying to regulate itself, it's not going to do you any favors.
Avoid caffeine, sugar, and other stimulating substances.
Don't force yourself to do a stressful task while telling yourself, "It's all in my head." Invalidating past negative experiences isn't going to get your heart-rate to lower or your headache to go away, but active treating it will.
Don't avoid stressful situations either, especially if they are necessary like going to work or going out of the house to go grocery shopping. Use the skills above to remind your stress response, also part of your nervous-system's limbic system, that you are going to take good care of yourself and you will feel better completing the task, even if it does cause a bit of stress.
Get some professional help. There are many professionals who work with the nervous system in their own way including doctors, massage therapists, acupuncturists, licensed mental health professionals, yoga instructors, and so many more. There is someone out there for you waiting to be your guide!