Freedom from anxiety; freeze, flight or fight?

I’m seeing an increase of clients with anxiety and stress, in my leafy Berkhamsted therapy room. Often there is something going on inside which can help in finding out the cause, or trigger. It’s been an interesting few years; increased conflicts, the COVID pandemic and related uncertainty, plus a dozen other news stories buzzing around like so many disappearing bees. We seem to be living in an anxiety provoking world. There’s a general suggestion within many types of therapy that depression is a fear of things past, while anxiety is a fear of things future. And without a doubt, stress can a be a key factor in both areas. So, what happens when we spring from normal functioning into ‘fight or flight?’

The stress response

Our evolution into the beings we are now can shed some light into the way that we react anxiously or in stressful situations. A trigger, or activating event, can put us into a feeling of panic; we can go blank, our usual problem solving seems impossible. ‘The stress response’ is a biological system which activates in the face of threat, which can be real or sometimes imagined. Animals, or us humans, will ‘freeze’ (think ‘deer in the headlights’), ‘flight’ (running away like mad), or fight (often to get enough wiggle room to then ‘flight’ again, rather than battle to the death).

What the brain does next

What happens next is incredible. The brain releases certain chemicals and neurotransmitters which increases the heart rate, lessens blood in key organs in case of injury from threat, increases breathing rate and lung volume and sends our blood to the large muscles in the limbs, ready to take whatever action needs to happen next for our survival. For example, your mouth is dry? There’s a ‘flipping’ or dull feeling in your chest or gut? Limbs seeming stiff or agitated? Many clients I see report one, or often all of these, as issues. And what the stress response is designed for is to get you ready to act, not think. To do, not to ponder. To survive, not perish. Let’s take an example.

Why can’t I think straight?

As the brain begins to turn some areas on and shut others down, the logical and problem-solving front area of the brain can dull or even shut down. The ‘doing & acting’ parts light up. The need is ‘to do’ not ‘to think.’ If a sabre-toothed tiger was creeping into your settlement thousands of years ago, the survival part of the brain wasn’t hanging around to see what pair of hide boots might be best to wear. You needed to move fast, to stay alive. If you didn’t, you died. And the interesting thing about the stress response is that it is designed for exactly these moments. Live or die. Fight or fly. Anxiety isn’t congruent with our day-to-day thinking, our usual functioning. Anxiety isn’t usual. So why do we experience it at all?

Stress and day to day

Modern life, while not full of everyday things that can kill us (unless you’ve cycled through London as often as I have) provides situations which can trigger high anxiety or the stress response in some people. Moving Home. Bereavements. Illnesses (of self or others) and separations, all tend to swap rankings in the top ‘most stressful’ life events in varying polls and studies. All are life changing. But how is it some people are more able to cope than others? And how is that for some people the small things can affect them just like the ‘big things’? Like those sabre-tooth tigers?

Stress itself

Stress is an interesting thing and rarely understood, certainly more rarely embraced. Stress is (arguably) feelings experienced by people when the demands placed upon them are higher than their ability to cope with them. People trained to deal with highly stressful situations (such as the emergency services, armed forces, surgeons and medics) are often trained in techniques and developing mind-sets in preparation for stress. In anticipation of needing calm, and not responding to the physiological and biological constructs designed to help them survive and just flight or fly. To slow down. To consider what is happening in their minds and how they can use it.

The science of stress

In her TED talk ‘How to Make Stress Your Friend’, psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses stress and the fact that, when you change how you think about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress. She cites a study carried out at Harvard University, where participants were primed before taking ‘the Social Stress Test’, a test designed to induce stress in participants, to rethink stress responses. Priming suggested an increase in heart rate was preparation to face action, an increase in breathing was a precursor to more oxygen supply to the brain. Would this information prove helpful, or would feelings of anxiety and mild panic take their place? Primed participants were less anxious and stressed and more confident. Not only this, but staggeringly the research showed that blood vessels which usually constrict or tighten were relaxed, meaning a massive shift from possible challenges with cardiovascular stresses to a more resilient approach to stress management.

Resilience day to day

So how can you live day to day with anxiety, stress and try to regulate the stress response? Well one way could be to see a therapist trained in helping clients in this area. Techniques can be given to clients to take away to help reduce feelings of anxiety. The root cause can often be uncovered, worked on, and a reframe (or another way of looking at the situation) can be talked through, to put into proportion or to mitigate the strength (or trigger) of the cause. If indeed the cause is known. Resilience can be taught. Because often, with unconscious or ‘autopilot’ thinking, the cause isn’t known. It’s just in there, somewhere. So, if this sounds familiar, all it can take is a phone call to set yourself on a path to transformation and living life less stressed.