How to quickly get out of fight or flight mode.


Edited 12/12/16 to add: I'm happy that this article has been a help to so many. Click here for a more in-depth and up-to-date guide on identifying and treating shock symptoms.

It doesn't take much to send some of us into fight or flight mode (aka sheer panic).

Getting yelled at by your boss or contemplating a leap into the unknown might not constitute getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, but our less-evolved reptile brains don't know that. Some people barely miss a beat, while others find themselves doing the emotional equivalent of riding a spooked horse.

For my highly-strung compatriots, I wanted to share a few techniques I use regularly to soothe my overtaxed nervous system. Best of all, these can all be done in public or discreetly in an office restroom (because freaking out at work sucks, amiright?)

Great. I'm in fight or flight mode and I'm freaking out. Now what?

1. Hot or Cold

A common symptom of the fight-flight-freeze response is feeling dissociated from your body. Either you become a ball of mindless, leg-jiggling energy or are consumed by racing thoughts (fight or flight), or you start feeling numb, sleepy, or spaced-out (freeze).

A simple way to reunite mind and body is by holding something hot or cold against your body. An easy and inconspicuous way to do this is with a hot or cold beverage. The sensation as you hold it in your hands and feel it moving down your throat immediately brings you back into the present moment.

Experiment with both sensations and see which one works best for you. If you're at home, ice packs and hot water bottles (applied to the belly, upper chest, or back of the neck) can be even more effective.

2. Conscious Breath

Our brainwaves automatically sync up with the stimuli around us, and the most ubiquitous of these is our breath. When you're in a panic response, you may notice yourself breathing in a shallow or jagged pattern - or not at all.

I like to do a version of Dr. Andrew Weil's "Relaxing Breath" exercise. I inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of six, and exhale for a count of eight. Making your exhale longer than your inhale triggers the "rest and digest" nervous system response.

If you like visualizing, you can imagine the breath entering your body, attaching to the tension present there, and then letting it out in a cloud on the exhale. Try at least four of these, putting your mind fully on the sensations in your body.

If you can't do this because you're too agitated, just evening out your inhale and exhale will help. Experiment with breathing through your nose or mouth and see which one feels more grounding.

3. Silent Scream

This tool is from Barbara Sher's book It's Only Too Late if You Don't Start Now. Open your mouth and scream with all the force and energy you can muster - but without using your vocal cords. It's basically like a whisper-scream. Try ten of these in a row, emptying your lungs completely between screams. Probably a good one for the staff bathroom, even if it's not very loud.

4. Touching on a Sore Spot

This is an EFT technique. Locate a spot on your chest about halfway between your throat and shoulder, a few inches down from your collarbone. It should feel slightly sore when you press on it.

Rub little circles on this spot while repeating a version of the following: "Even though I'm feeling [crappy, scared, etc], it's okay for me to feel this way/ I'm going to try to love myself anyway/ I'm going to accept this feeling right now." Tweak the words to suit yourself. Stay focused on the feeling and notice if it shifts or changes as you repeat your phrase.

If you like this tool, you might be interested in the TAT method, which also uses acupressure techniques.

5. Trauma and Tension Releasing Exercises

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put one foot in front of the other and all your weight on your front foot (your back heel will naturally lift off the ground). Using your back foot to balance as necessary, raise yourself up on the toes of your front foot and then slowly lower yourself down. Do this 5-10 times; you'll probably feel a slight burning sensation in your calf muscles. Then put your weight on your back foot and lift the front foot, shaking it out - it quiver on its own for a bit. This is the first of the Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises.

These exercises help relax the psoas muscles, which tend to seize up or contract when you go into fight or flight. This set of muscles attaches to 22-24 different places in the body through your thighs and vertebrae; in other words, how tense they are really affects the way you move, stand, and walk. Check out Youtube, the TRE iOS app, or David Bercelli's book The Revolutionary Trauma Release Process for the rest of the exercises.

6. Get Your Mind Back on Your Side

You may notice that these techniques don't involve analytical thinking. That's because the part of your brain responsible for the fight or flight response isn't really verbal, so "talking yourself down" isn't very effective without also incorporating a nonverbal technique.

Once you've done one or more of the above techniques and you've downgraded from red alert to yellow, look around. Notice the environment you're in. Notice that whatever happened to trigger the response is probably not a life-or-death situation (if it is, ignore this article and go with your limbic system!).

Notice that there's nothing, right here, in this room, at this moment, that is threatening your physical safety. What's present are the thoughts telling you what all this doooom means for you in the future. Recognize that in this moment, the only source of distress is coming from inside your own head. You can choose to listen, but you don't have to.

You and Me, Baby, We Ain't Nothin' But Mammals

Really, the spooked horse analogy I used at the beginning of this post tells you all you need to know about quieting the alarm response. Our bodies react just like other animals when faced with a threat - and they know what they need when they get triggered. Notice if you are feeling the urge to release energy or the need for calming and comfort. Do you need to cry, run, take a nap, get a hug?

Treat yourself gently; mentally yelling "What's wrong with you?! Calm the #%&* down already!" does not actually make things better. (I know, it was a surprise to me, too!)

Finally: Assess Your Environment for Chronic Stressors

I hope these techniques help you calm down so you can think more clearly and make good decisions. That being said, if you're in an environment where you find yourself in fight or flight (or freeze) multiple times a day...I hope it's possible for you to change your situation so it's not as traumatizing. Your brain, body, immune system, and nervous system will thank you.

As always, I'd love to hear your feedback or experiences!

I think this is a good time to remind everyone that I’m not a doctor, physical therapist, or other medical professional. My experience with these exercises has been safe, relaxing, and beneficial; nonetheless, you are the best authority on your body and what’s right for you. These suggestions are not intended to replace professional medical care or to treat severe trauma/anxiety.

Photo credit: Peteron

Contemplating something scary like a job change can easily send you into running around in a panic or numbing out with a bag of Oreos. Calming your brain down so you can make good decisions is just one of the things I cover in my career transition programs.

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