Updated: Feb 10, 2020
After my last article, I was asked to say more about the fight or flight response of our nervous system. So, here goes:
You’ve heard countless times about fight or flight and we all think we know what that means… but did you know that as a culture, going back generations, our nervous systems have been wired to be in fight/flight almost continuously? Our ancestors were always on guard to protect their clan from dangers, whether it be another tribe or a wild animal. This adaptive response has been passed down from generations, except now it’s often maladaptive. It’s not always the dramatic and intense way of being that you may think of it. It can be low levels of feeling ‘something’s not right, I need to do something, this needs to be fixed, or I need to get rid of this feeling/experience’…We don’t typically think of these modes as fight/flight, but that’s what they are. We are anticipating danger and prepping for it (even if the ‘danger’ means someone is insulting us, we are trying to appear competent, or we are defensive and clinging to our stories of how things ‘should’ be, etc.).
Each of our bodies have an individual story. Yes, our ancestors had to constantly be on alert for survival, and that has been passed on, so we do come into this world wired to be on alert. So, the nervous system is scanning for reasons to fight or flee (or freeze). Yet, each individual body has a story that also contributes to this stress response. Especially if you have trauma and conditioning that has solidified this as an adaptive response. I mean, it is a highly intelligent response, right? Our nervous system detects danger, and sends messages for our heart rate to increase, our muscles to contract and the blood pumping, so we can defend ourselves appropriately… However, this response, if there is no danger, is problematic.. and often there isn’t any danger! When we are defended but no real danger exists, we can feel combative, disconnected, and separate from those we are engaged with.
Because we are typically living from the neck up, being so identified with and consumed by the stories we tell ourselves, we can actually trick ourselves into thinking there is something wrong... There's something I need to defend, avoid or engage with aggressively, even when this is often not the case. However this is our habit.. fight/flight/freeze. What we want to practice is: as Tara Brach says, Attend and Befriend. This is the way to activate the rest and digest part of our nervous system.
The limbic brain, or the oldest part of our brain (reptilian) is responsible for the fight/flight reaction. It detects the danger (real or imagined) which triggers fight/flight. The most recent evolution of our brain is the frontal cortex, responsible for emotional regulation and wise/skillful reasoning. If our frontal lobe is communicating effectively with our limbic brain, we can usually manage stressors with some degree of effectiveness. However, for many of us, these two components of the brain don’t communicate well, because of our family/cultural conditioning and past traumas. So, if you’re always reactive, and defensive, it’s not really your fault. This is your nervous system doing what it thinks is best.
It can be helpful to know that you are not to blame for your angry, aggressive, withdrawn, avoiding, defensive, and disappointed reactions. This was adaptive at one time. This is how we handled our fears. However, it is your responsibility to learn how to work with them. When you’re living in your limbic brain (you’re wrapped up in your stories, your conditioning, and your habit reactions), there are ways to shift and train yourself to activate your frontal lobe and your rest and digest response. From this place, you are able to choose a response (different from a reaction) that is much more compassionate (towards yourself or others) and skillful. When we are in fight/flight, we are unable to connect with others and unable to feel integrated and whole within our own being. This is why we must learn how to work with it. When we are grounded, centered, and responsive (not reactive), we are much more able to connect in loving and compassionate ways to others and ourselves.
So 1st), recognize and become aware of gravity. How do we know that gravity is doing what gravity does? We become aware of the feeling of our feet touching the ground, our butt on the chair, our glasses touching the nose, or the way our shirt feels against our skin. This is part of getting grounded and out of your head.
2nd) Exaggerate you exhales. I mean, reallllly extend them. A deep inhale for an in-count of 1-2-3-4, and then a much deeper exhale for an out-count of 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8…Doing this 3 or 5 or 10 times sends the message to our brain that everything is ok, because once again, who breathes like this if everything is not ok? This is activating your rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system) and deactivates the fight/flight (sympathetic).
3rd and finally, engage in some self-talk. You can ask yourself, is this really a crisis? Is this really danger? It can be helpful to remember that our thoughts are not always facts, and they certainly are not always true. More supportive self talk: 'I've been through this before, I can do it again.' 'This is just anxiety, I know how to manage this.' Nurturing, compassionate self talk allows you to soften into the moment, respond flexibly, and choose to respond in ways aligned with spirt over ego.
If you're dealing with past traumas, and might need help with anxiety and how to manage fight/flight, a licensed mental health professional in Saigon, Vietnam can help. Feel free to contact me.