You are bound to have times when you feel down because of your circumstances. Life doesn’t always go to plan and sometimes you can get yourself into situations where there doesn’t seem to be a way out. It could be that your financial situation has hit rock bottom, or your relationship is in tatters. Perhaps you’re a sports person and an injury means you have to give up, or take a long break to recover.
More and more and people are coming to understand the basic ‘fight or flight’ response that is triggered in fearful or anxious situations. Here is a brief reminder.
Your unconscious mind evolved as an automated toolset to help keep you safe and alive. Long before we left the trees, we developed a basic set of reactions that could keep us safe as a species.
When we are aware of something that is potentially dangerous our instinct prepares for one of three options. We may run or hide from the danger (flight), we may attack or defend ourselves (fight), or we may keep very still in the hope that the danger simply passes us by (freeze).
Typical Fight or Flight responses
These natural responses are supported by changes in our physical state that prepare our bodies for one of the above actions.
- your pupils dilate, to let in more light.
- blood rushes to the parts where it is most needed – the heart, the brain, the legs, and the arms
- your heart beats faster.
- you may become breathless.
- your mouth goes dry.
- you may feel the need to empty your bowels and bladder to reduce your weight when running.
- you may tremble as your muscles become primed for action.
Many of these signs are familiar to anyone with anxiety or panic attacks, but even at a milder level they can be disconcerting. You may not even be aware that they have been triggered.
After the danger has passed you may still experience these fight or flight symptoms 20 minutes to an hour later.
This system for protecting your body is outdated – most of the dangers in modern life are not the sort you run away from, fight or stand still looking at. However, some of our appropriate methods for dealing with fear are surprisingly similar – so maybe thinking about that can make it easier to choose appropriate modern alternatives.
Here are some freeze, fight or flight techniques you can use to overcome fear.
This one is often overlooked in articles dealing with the unconscious fear response. On the plains, humans were not always the fastest creatures. It must have often been the best policy to just keep very still and hope the danger passes.
Stillness, in this busy world, presents an opportunity to calm the mind and release the fear. Whether you are worrying about that interview, or facing a difficult journey, it can be good to relax and take stock.
You can employ techniques like meditation, get a massage or simply find a comfortable space and focus on your breathing. For me the best breath techniques involve taking a deep breath in and then a slightly longer out-breath. We naturally relax when we breathe out, and tense when we breathe in. So it makes sense to do a bit more of the former.
Breathing provides more oxygen to the brain, which makes you better able to think things through.
The tribal warrior, or hunter, was trained from birth to deal with danger resourcefully. He or she would be adept with a knife, a bow, or a spear.
These days you can get into a lot of trouble if you walk around with any of these admittedly handy weapons. So how can we use that fight response safely and make a difference to our situation?
Facing your fears, can sound like a cliché. When you come across something that is difficult to deal with, being told to ‘man-up’ or just do it, can be extremely unhelpful. Comments like that can make you feel worthless or inadequate.
There are some ways that you can face fear effectively, however. One of them is to build resistance by giving yourself small challenges intentionally over time. When you know that you struggle with situations – maybe meeting new people, talking on the telephone, or even walking down a busy street – you can deliberately put yourself in situations that are similar, but less difficult. You can just practice saying hello to the cashier at the supermarket or coffee shop. Pick up the phone and practice a conversation without dialling the number, before you do it for real. Find a time of day when the street in question is less busy. Maybe it will be better early in the morning or late in the evening and see how that goes a few times.
Another way to face that fear safely is in your imagination. Picture yourself, in your best, most positive state, living through the experience successfully. Rehearse mentally the reactions you will have and the actions you will take. One very effective way to do this, is to imagine that the experience has just come to its end, and you have coped really well. Imagine what that memory of doing well would look, sound, and feel like? What would you say to yourself? Then go back over the actual imagined event, remembering the things that you did that made it go okay.
Sometimes you just have to run away. I think this instinctive reaction is the one that most people prefer and it’s possibly the easiest one to re-enact in the modern age.
What is easier than to simply avoid the problem altogether? Run away, ignore it, duck the question, avoid the danger. Maybe you could stay indoors the whole time and it will just go away.
The more you avoid the problem, the more problems will replace it. Your mind is always looking for danger. We replaced the danger of marauding lions with the danger of being sacked, or rejected, or hurt. If we hide from those dangers too, we will replace them with the danger of going out, or leaving our bed, or talking to strangers.
Your unconscious mind gave you the option of flight, because sometimes it was the only choice. So, it is still an option to consider. Not every fear has to be faced. Ask yourself – what will happen if I avoid this thing that I am afraid of? Look at the current consequences and the more longterm. Make an informed choice, and if it really is appropriate to do so, choose flight.
For example, if you are on the street and a mugger has attacked someone in front of you, you could fight back, if you think that you are fit enough. But it might be wiser to withdraw and phone for help. Some family arguments have gone on for too long, and it may be easier to avoid a subject than have yet another argument about it.
Sometimes avoiding a situation in the short term while you find a strategy to deal with it, can help. A difficult meeting at work, scheduled for today, might be easier to prepare for if you postponed it to tomorrow. Having somebody else hold the meeting could take some of the emotion out of the situation. Adaptation is vital if we are to survive as a species. So instead of throwing out the old fight or flight mechanism altogether, perhaps the answer is to adapt it to our modern lifestyle. I wonder what other approaches you might use to deal with your fears.
Robert Sanders is a Therapist and Coach as well as a writer. You can read more on his blog.
As we begin to return to a more normal world this is a good time to look at how we approach dis-ease and wellness from a refreshed perspective, we have the ideal opportunity to manage our health in a more natural and sustainable way, using holistic methods which are mostly easy to do and these practices give us a better physical and emotional connection with our own healthcare. As a herbalist alongside my fellow holistic health practitioners, we repeatedly see how a natural approach to disease prevention, treatment and recovery can make a very significant difference.
The following tips are relevant to coronavirus protection but these can also be applied for protection against the range of illness’s that commonly circulate throughout the year. Importantly, we should remember that we’re built to heal from within, if we nourish our physical, mental and energetic bodies, most of us have the ability to maintain good health. The layers of our immune system and our ability to adapt are integral to how we stay healthy and we can easily enhance these processes with diet and plant medicines.
Eat well – decrease sugar, carbohydrate, fat and protein, small amounts of these are good but don’t need to be eaten with every meal. Decrease processed foods and increase plant foods. Increase grains, nuts, seeds, pulses and fungi and if organic or local is an option, even better.
- Eat your rainbow of food every day. Red, yellow, blue, purple and green fruits and veg contain an abundance of varied substances and compounds which are used by the body to stay in good shape.
- Maintain good levels of hydration with plenty of water and opt for decaffeinated options and don’t forget you can chill herbal infusions in hot weather. Oats actually nourish our nerve fibres, eating oats regularly can help with functional nerve problems such as pins and needles.
- Excess weight makes us more vulnerable to certain conditions, if you need to lose weight remember that exercise is as important as diet.
Microbiome health – can affect our overall health, some of the negative influences on our microbiome include sugar, sweeteners, yeast, antibiotics, stress and lack of exercise. The good guys include pre and probiotics, fresh fruit and vegetables, allium foods such as garlic and onions, fermented food and drinks and herbal bitters.
Traditional Herbal Bitters are a mixture of bitter tasting herbs which are taken in dropper doses every day, normally before meals. They directly stimulate our digestive juices, enzymes & liver, which helps food breakdown, digestion, excretion and intestinal flora.
Supplements – The question of supplements concern diet, environment and body function. If your diet is lacking something specific or there are issues such as digestive disorders which may impair absorption of vitamins and minerals then supplements might be appropriate. Age is another consideration, as we get older we absorb and assimilate nutrients less optimally and a lack of sunlight in winter months may leave us low on Vitamin D.
The need to have control of our lives, and the need to be ‘master of our own destiny’, is a core basic human need. As children grow and learn, they work from dependence to greater and greater independence as the years progress. It is an essential part of the survival of any species that its young be able to fly the nest and be individuals in their own right. Perhaps this is the reason that a loss of control or autonomy in our lives has been found to lead to symptoms of panic, anxiety and depression.