How to Identify a Fight or Flight Response
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Have you ever felt your palms suddenly get sweaty and your mind go blank in a seemingly harmless situation? If so, you may have experienced a fight-or-flight response—don’t worry, basically everyone has one. A fight-or-flight response is a natural survival mechanism that has been programmed into our bodies for thousands of years. This response, which is also known as the “stress response” (or even your “caveman brain” kicking in) is an evolutionary adaptation that prepares our bodies for physical activity. In other words, it gets us ready to either fight the danger or flee from the danger.
Although this response can be helpful in life-threatening situations, it can also become a problem in our daily lives, especially when we experience it in response to non-threatening stimuli. In this case, the fight-or-flight that was adapted to help us can end up hurting us, leading to anxiety, stress, and even panic attacks. If you’ve ever wondered how to identify exactly when you enter fight-or-flight and learn about some ways to cope with this response, keep reading!
How to Identify a Fight-Or-Flight Response:
A fight-or-flight response can be characterized by several physical and emotional symptoms. These symptoms are as followed:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Muscle tension
- Dry mouth
- A feeling of losing control
- Sense of doom
- Fear or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mind going “blank”
- Urge to escape or remove yourself from the situation
If you experience one or more of these situations in response to perceived danger or threat, your body has likely gone into a state of fight-or-flight to protect you from potential danger. This hyper-alert state is designed to prepare you to fight the danger head-on or make you able to flee the situation quickly.
Although this response is healthy and normal, it can become a problem if it is happening frequently and interfering with your daily life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage your fight-or-flight response and deal with the anxiety that comes with it.
Being Prone to a Hyperactive Fight-or-Flight Response:
Although every human has a fight-or-flight response, some individuals are more prone to a hyperactive fight-or-flight response that goes off in non-threatening situations. These individuals include:
- Highly Sensitive People (HSP): Being an HSP, or being “highly sensitive” to and easily overwhelmed by your surroundings, means that you also have a highly sensitive nervous system. This makes your body more prone to being sent into a fight-or-flight response by overwhelming—even though this stimulus may not be dangerous or overwhelming to people who are not HSP. For example, a non-HSP walking into a party with flashing lights and loud music may not feel overwhelmed, and instead feel excited to dance and socialize, while an HSP may immediately get sensory overload, feel overwhelmed, and go into a fight-or-flight response.
- People with Pre-Existing Mental Health Conditions: People with pre-existing mental health conditions or illnesses, like anxiety disorders, panic disorders, PTSD, and/or autism, often experience an overactive fight-or-flight response. This is because their bodies respond to stress, and stimuli in general, in a different way than others without these conditions do. This may be a result of trauma, maladaptive perceptions/coping skills, or a genetic predisposition to an anxiety response.
How to Cope with an Overactive Fight-or-Flight Response:
- Practice deep breathing and mindfulness. One of the best ways to calm your body during a fight-or-flight response is to practice deep breathing techniques and stay mindful of your surroundings. Breathing slowly and deeply helps slow your heart rate, calm your nerves, and reduce the tension in your muscles. This alerts your brain that the situation at hand is not actually dangerous, which makes you feel less agitated. Mindfulness is also an effective tool for reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. This practice helps calm your mind and makes it focus on the present moment. A simple way to practice mindfulness is to do some “grounding exercises,” like identifying something that goes with each sense (something you can hear, something you can see, something you can smell, something you can feel, and something you can taste).
- Exercise regularly and get enough sleep. Exercise is a great way to reduce stress and release endorphins that help elevate your mood. You may notice that the physical symptoms of a fight-or-flight response are similar to the way your body responds to physical activity (sweating, increased heart rate, quick breathing, etc.) When you allow your body to feel these symptoms and associate them with a mundane situation, like exercising, your body and mind will become less agitated when a fight-or-flight response arises. This way, your body becomes better at coping with these symptoms, rather than escalating them by becoming anxious about their unfamiliarity. Additionally, getting adequate sleep is essential for physical and emotional well-being. Establish a consistent bedtime, avoid screens before bed, and don’t exercise less than a few hours before bed.
- Practice self-awareness and challenge negative thoughts. Negativity in your self-talk can contribute to your fight-or-flight response. The mind has a lot of power over how the body responds to situations. This is why two people may have very different physical responses to the same stimuli. For example, say you are on a walk through your neighborhood, and a dog starts running toward you as you turn the corner. Someone who thinks, “I’m in danger, the dog is going to attack me!” will likely start tensing up or running away, while someone else who thinks, “What a cute and friendly dog!” will not have a stress response. Try to pinpoint what kind of thoughts you have about situations where fight-or-flight tends to occur. Are they negative or based on fear? If so, it may be a good idea to work on challenging these thoughts and thinking more positively. Check out this book to learn more!
- Connect with others for support. Dealing with stress and anxiety can be overwhelming. Social support is important in times of adversity. Spending time with family and friends, joining a support group, or participating in a hobby or interest can help promote feelings of calm and happiness, rather than fear and stress.
- Seek professional help. If you find that you are having trouble coping with your fight-or-flight response, or believe that it may be an indicator of anxiety or panic disorder, feel encouraged to seek professional help. Mental health professionals are trained to provide you with the care you need and deserve!
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