Fight or Flight - when fear/anxiety is useful, when it's not & what to do about it

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Fear can cause us to feel overwhelmed by unhelpful, ineffectual thinking, by feelings of tension, stress and distress in our bodies. We can feel like we want to wriggle out of our own skins and run for the hills... Fear can trigger feelings of anger, frustration unhappiness, overwhelm. There's a reason for this...

Fear when it is useful

We all know that in the event of an emergency, when our life really is at risk, our body's fear response can be very helpful in getting us out of danger fast.Those occasions when we come face to face with a raging bull, having unwittingly strayed into its territory while strolling off the beaten track on a country walk. Or when we're driving along peacefully along a 60mph straight road that after a gradual bend reveals a potential collision with other vehicles who have suddenly stopped just ahead.
In these situations, the fact that as soon as our minds engaging with the risk that we face a message is sent within a fraction of a second to our bodies via our central nervous system to be on guard is very, very useful. Our primal flight or fight response is instantly activated with the release of stress hormones into our bodies - cortisol, adrenaline. Our oxygenated blood, previously coursing round our whole bodies steadily, is now immediately diverted away from parts of the body not needed to help us fight or flee the danger to those parts of the body that need to be optimised if we are to physically escape the danger - namely, our heart, lungs, arms and legs.
In the case of the raging bull,  our ancient ancestors would most likely have used the same fight or fight response to physically take on the bull in the hope of bringing home a hearty meal to their tribe.  We, on the other hand are more likely in our modern-day more civilised way, to choose to flee from the beast instead. So with the extra firepower in our hearts and lungs and oomph in our arms and legs we turn and leg it, running as fast as we can to the nearest boundary and launching ourselves over it to safety.
Back to the road hazard now - the presence of our flight or fight response enables us to scan around us for an escape route as we slam on the brakes and perhaps choose to swerve away from the hazard to avoid colliding with the stationary vehicle ahead.

In the immediate aftermath of our escape from danger we may become aware of how much our heart is racing, how sweaty our palms and armpits are as thoughts of relief dominate our minds.
In both situations, once a place of perceived safety is reached, our minds let our bodies know through our central nervous system and our physical return to calm commences. Our heart rates slow down, and blood supply returns to all parts of the body. As we recover from the extra exertion, we may notice that our legs and arms, so strong a few moments before, feel like they have turned to jelly. Phew!!!! We made it. Big up for our flight or fight response!!

The trouble is that our flight or fight response, so useful in helping us escape from physical danger is our body's only fear response even when the perceived problem or threat is not physical at all and can cause us no end of physical discomfort and emotional distress in the process. 

Fear when its not useful
The truth is that most of the things that cause us to be fearful i.e  that worry us or shock us, that we get anxious about etc, tend to be triggers linked to how we reacted in similar situations in the past, events that caused us to feel threatened or traumatised at the time. Whenever we experience any event, or even as we imagine experiencing an event in the future that has not even happened yet (our imaginations are very vivid so we are really good at this) our mind is constantly scanning for possible threat, trying to keep us safe from danger. So, if our mind perceives a particular event (current or imagined) to be similar to that past traumatic/unsafe event, our mind will still activate our fear response in a bid to keep us safe.  This is the case, even in spite of with our added maturity and our normal ability to handle things very differently now compared to how we responded to that inital event. We are unhelpfully returned to the 6 year-old version of us.

The problem is that the flight or fight response- so useful when we are in real physical danger - really only helps us if we can physically run away from the danger or to physically fight it.  As it fills our heart, lungs, arms and legs with extra energy to do this, it also causes the creative, logical part of our brain to close down temporarily. This means that when it isn't appropriate to run away or fight, we still experience our hearts pumping, our palms sweaty, our stomachs and bodies feel tense and we can't even think our way creatively out of the situation we are in or that we are vividly imagining ourselves being in in the future.  As an example, imagine the problem you encounter is an email from a colleague, copied into your boss, that you interpret as an undermining of your capabilities to do a part of your job.  The threat is enhanced by the fact that you want that promotion that is looming so badly.   Your fear response is triggered instantaneously by the memory of a "similar" threatening event when you were a 6 year-old child.  Back then, a teacher believed a school friend's made-up tales about you despite your frightened protests of innocence and as a result you were made to stand outside the headmaster's office in disgrace, trembling and tearful and miss playtime.
In this new set of circumstances years later, as a mature adult, your mind triggers that same fear response and fear that you felt as a child -- your belief that it was the end of the world and the sense of being wronged and the understandable helplessness you felt at that time is retriggered in response to the collegue's email and the risk of missing out on the reward - promotion, this time rather than playtime. So, with heart pumping, sweaty palms, a twisting in your stomach just like you felt at the time, your capable, creative, adult mind is no longer present. Instead your 6 year old mind doesn't even have the ability to put this threat into any context to enable a rationla response i.e. the fact that your boss has already told you how highly he has valued your contribution over the last four years and has actually encouraged you to apply for the promotion opprtunity.  

So in this agitated state of injustice and fear you spend the next couple of days, feeling anxious, highly stressed, consumed by thoughts of betrayal, injustice and your promotion chances are doomed. Your heightened agitation causes you to be irritable and snappy with people around you- family and colleagues, your sleep is fitful and disrupted and you function at a much lower level of effectiveness as you ruminate over your problem and your fears increase.  These symptoms continue until such time as your mind is reassured that the danger has passed and all is well. Alternatively, in the immediate fear-fuelled illogical thinking following you reading your colleague's email, you may make an irrational, impulsive response (i.e. an angry, frustrated rant to your boss or to your colleague) that later, when calm reasoning returns, you berate yourself for as you realise your hot-headed reaction has done far greater harm to your promotion chances than the email ever did.

Overcoming unhelpful fears, phobias and anxiety

Relief from the fear response when it is not serving you, can be very successfully achieved with the right combination of hypnotherapy and mindfulness together with other cutting-edge psychotherapy techniques including EFT, CBT, NLP. I work with each client to help free them from the unique distress and helplessness that they are experiencing from unhelpful fears, anxieties and phobias. My aim is to get each client to a place of calm confidence in presence of circumstances that previously would have been the cause of anxiety and fear for them.

Usually the thoughts feelings and behaviours that underpin fear or anxiety to certain situations are part of a pattern, that started in your past, that frequently repeats itself or has done throughout your life when similar circumstances show up. Sometimes fear can be triggered in relation to one type of event i.e. exam nerves , fear of public speaking, conflict with another individual, work stress and overwhelm.  Sometimes it can feel more generalised where that state of unpleasant, heightened agitation, unhelpful thoughts and constant worrying can seem to be almost a constant in your life. When you do occasionally relax, you tend to feel absolutely drained as your body recovers from being in a state of contant vigilance.

Many people suffer the crippling effects of a phobia - a past event that the mind processed as traumatic, can develop into a phobic response to something wherein an extreme flight or fight response is triggered in the individual's body even when a thought of that something enters the person's mind. Palpitations, panic attacks, hyperventilating, shaking, extreme emotional responses, a freeze response, catastrophic thinking are all typical responses by a person experiencing a phobia.  

Whatever experience of fear, stress or anxiety is causing you distress and feelings of helplessness and ineffectiveness in any area of your life, I can work with you to release those unhelpful patterns at the subconscious level of your mind so that when you face similar situations in the future you find that thoughts of these no longer trigger the fear response.

I also spend time teaching my clients self-help techniques so that if and when you experience an unhelpful fear-based thoughts and feelings going forwrad you have effective tools to use that will return you as quickly as possible to your calm, rational, resourceful state. This way you are better able to get things into perspective and find the best way to deal with the issue with clarity, confidence and self-belief rather than the opposite occurring.

To discuss your anxiety, fear, or phobia in strict confidence please contact me by calling me on 07876 795871

or CONTACT ME by email here...



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