Is your fight or flight instinct right about fear?

Written by Robert Sanders. Posted in Blog

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This system for protecting your body is outdated – most of the dangers in modern life are not the sort you run away from, fight or stand still looking at.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.

Freeze

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.

Fight                                                                    

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.

Interventions like NLP, coaching, hypnotherapy and counselling, can also help change your response to fearful situations.

Flight

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 it can be good to thrash these things out with a counselor or a coach, or just a supportive friend.

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.

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