Understanding The Fight-or-Flight Response
Days 6,7 & 8
In the previous lesson we looked at how catastrophizing affects our mind, thoughts, emotions and body.
Using the CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) worksheet: A 3-Day Task you will now have 3 days’ research and evidence of how you might catastrophize things that have no basis in reality.
Don’t worry if you haven’t, you can always return to that worksheet when you're ready.
However, this is a step-by-step approach to beating anxiety so I’d highly recommend running through that previous task.
Here’s a link to Lesson 2:
In Lesson 3 we’re going to look at how anxiety ramps up the pressure, via the Fight-or-Flight response, and how it’s working out all wrong for you at the moment.
Then we will go through another proven CBT technique which will help quieten down the system and calm the adrenaline rush. This is where we begin to identify the thought patterns that fire up the anxiety symptoms and how to change them to make them work for us.
Anxiety starts with the Fight-or-Flight Response
The Fight-or-Flight response
When a person perceives the threat of harm—whether emotionally or physically—their body will automatically initiate a survival response
Heart rate elevates
Palms begin to sweat
Breathing becomes rapid
These changes are all part of the fight-or-flight response, which prepares the person to either confront or flee from the threat.
The fight-or-flight response forms the basis of several mental health symptoms, including stress, anxiety, and (out of context) anger.
However, it quickly gets out of kilter when we suffer from chronic anxiety. Here, let me explain further.
How is the Fight-or-Flight response inappropriately triggered?
It is important to recognize ‘Fight-or-Flight’ as a normal response to fear. However, it can be triggered too often by things our mind thinks are a threat.
Take a smoke alarm
A smoke alarm is designed to signal that there’s a danger of fire. However, it can’t tell the difference between burnt toast or an actual fire. Burnt toast isn’t a threat but the response of the alarm is the same – intrusive, irritating and difficult to ignore!
The Fight-or-Flight response was designed to deal with feeling frightened for our lives and getting us ready to run away, stay and fight or stand and freeze.
But for most of us life isn’t about fighting or escaping predators or enemies anymore.
Now, the Fight-or-Flight response is much more likely to be triggered by more multifaceted and elusive concerns like money worries, presentations, job interviews, exams, meeting new people or social situations.
All of these may trigger physical symptoms designed to temporarily change the way the body is functioning to enable rapid physical response.
How do we physically react to the Fight-Or-Flight response?
Our body’s response activity then increases and might include:
Circulation increases blood supply to brain, muscles and to limbs.
Brain activity changes: we think less and react more instinctively.
Heart beats quicker and harder.
Blood pressure rises.
Lungs take in more O2 and release more CO2.
Liver releases extra sugar for energy.
Muscles tense for action.
Sweating increases to speed heat loss.
Adrenal glands release adrenalin to fuel response.
Then these things slow down:
Digestion – stomach and small intestines reduce activity; we might be sick.
Mouth goes dry.
Bladder slows down; we might feel we want to go to the toilet. This is the body’s way of “lightening the load”.
Immune responses decrease.
So now we can see how the body is set up to survive by triggering the Fight-or-Flight response. But how does understanding this make us feel less anxious?
Why understanding this makes us feel less anxious
Because the way the mind and body are set up for survival, some of the symptoms of Fight-or-Flight can be uncomfortable and painful.
Our frightened mind concludes that there must be something REALLY WRONG with us and this thinking increases our anxiety.
So the anxiety persists when we have both an emotional AND a mental reaction to it. This keeps anxiety going.
We get anxious about getting anxious or experience fear of fear. This is heightened when there’s no obvious external source of physical danger because our imagination searches for the source of anxiety.
So, we start responding to imaginary threats (e.g. I’m going to mess up the presentation) which creates a reason to be anxious.
Add in the response via physical symptoms (see the list above) and together, these ramp up the anxiety to severe levels.
How do we reverse the Fight-or-Flight response?
We do this through CBT which works by identifying and addressing how our thoughts and behaviors interact to create anxiety.
Here's an example of how two different people can react to a situation differently based upon their thoughts:
The first step to break the cycle is to recognise the symptoms of anxiety for what they are and to remind ourselves that they are not evidence of something being really wrong. They are not - in themselves - a reason to become more anxious.
The second step is then be to deal with the symptoms of anxiety as symptoms which can be “treated”.
Learning to calm down your rapid breathing with relaxation breathing can counteract the Fight-or-Flight response and induce its opposite: Rest-and-Digest.
Because irrational thoughts can be difficult to pin down without practice, I highly suggest carefully working through these next exercises. It can also be helpful to complete them several times using different anxiety-producing situations.
CHALLENGING ANXIOUS THOUGHTS EXERCISE - FOR PRACTICE
See how two people can experience the same situation in different ways based upon their thoughts.
Each example depicts a negative and rational thought, and a typical outcome of each thinking style.
Situation: Jason and Kurt both receive a negative evaluation at work.
Negative Thought: “I can’t do anything right. I bet I get fired because of this!”
Emotion: Depressed and nervous.
Behavior: Jason avoids his boss because he believes he’s in trouble. He feels nervous the next time he’s confronted with challenging work, and performs poorly.
Rational Thought: “I guess I didn’t work hard enough—I’ll have to come up with a better plan for next time.”
Emotion: Disappointed but motivated.
Behavior: Kurt seeks out his boss to talk about how he can improve. He approaches his next task as a challenge and gradually improves.
Situation: Gwen and Shirley both have an argument with a close friend.
Negative Thought: “We always argue! Why can’t she ever see my side? This is so unfair.”
Emotion: Angry and blaming.
Behavior: Gwen stays angry at her friend and does not reach out to repair the relationship. Over time, Gwen’s friendship becomes more and more toxic.
Rational Thought: “That was rough—I should apologize. We can both be stubborn sometimes.”
Emotion: Forgiving and regretful.
Behavior: Shirley accepts a portion of the responsibility and apologizes to her friend. They communicate and continue to strengthen their relationship.
NOW YOU PRACTISE
Write down an alternative rational thought for each situation. What do you think the resulting emotion and behavior might be?
Situation: Emily is cut off by another driver and has to quickly hit her brakes.
Negative Thought: “What a jerk! They don’t care about anyone but themselves. I could’ve
Behavior: Emily drives aggressively to provoke the driver who cut her off. Emily is still angry when she gets home, and yells at her family.
New Emotion and Behavior:
Situation: Travis notices his wife hasn’t helped around the house for a week.
Negative Thought: “Does she even care? She knows I’ll clean up, so she abuses my kindness!”
Emotion: Angry and sad.
Behavior: Travis lets the dishes pile up and doesn’t say anything to his wife. He doesn’t ask why she hasn’t helped, and becomes angrier when he assumes she’s just selfish.
New Emotion and Behavior:
Situation: Regina is invited to a birthday party by an acquaintance.
Negative Thought: “I won’t know anyone at this party and I’ll just seem out of place. She probably invited me because she felt obligated.”
Emotion: Sad and anxious.
Behavior: Regina lies and tells her friend she already has plans for the night of her party. Regina and her friend fail to develop their friendship.
New Emotion and Behavior:
Situation: Thom notices a girl on the bus who keeps looking his direction.
Negative Thought: “Do I have something on my face? Is my fly down? Maybe I smell bad or something. I need to get home and take a shower.”
Emotion: Self-conscious and anxious.
Behavior: Thom avoids the girl and rushes off the bus without looking up from his shoes.
New Emotion and Behavior:
CHALLENGING ANXIOUS THOUGHTS EXERCISE - FOR YOU
Here’s an exercise for you to challenge your own anxious thoughts. Do this exercise every day for the next 4 days.
Anxiety can be a healthy emotion—it forces us to focus on our problems, and work hard to solve them. But sometimes, anxiety grows out of control, and does just the opposite. It cripples our ability to solve problems. When this happens, irrational thoughts often play a role.
In this exercise, we will practice catching our irrational thoughts, and replacing them with rational alternatives. With enough practice, this will become a natural process that can help you manage anxiety.
Describe a common situation that triggers your anxiety:
For example: “giving a speech in front of a crowd” or “driving in rush hour traffic”
Anxiety distorts our thinking by causing us to overestimate the likelihood of something going wrong, and imagine the potential consequences as worse than they really are.
Sometimes, just taking a moment to think about these facts can help us recognize our irrational thoughts.
Usually, anxious thoughts focus on the worst possible outcomes, even when they aren’t likely.
For example, a person who is nervous about giving a speech might think: “I am going to forget everything and embarrass myself, and I’ll never live it down”.
As an outside observer, we know that an alternate, more rational thought might be: “My speech might only be OK, but if I do mess up, everyone will forget about it soon enough”.
Using your own “worst outcome” and “likely outcome” from above, describe your…
Irrational thought is.....
Imagine you are faced with the anxiety-producing situation from above. Describe the...
Imagine the worst outcome comes true. Would it still matter…
1 week from now:
1 month from now:
1 year from now:
Practice this regularly until it becomes automatic every time you start to get severely anxious.
In Lesson 4 we will be delving deep to find the source of the anxiety.