How to tell if your Nervous System is Stuck in Fight-or Flight
The human body is a complex and intricate system, with various mechanisms designed to protect us from potential harm. One such mechanism is the fight-or-flight response, a physiological reaction that occurs in response to perceived harmful events, attacks, or threats to survival. However, when this response is continually activated due to chronic stress or trauma, it can lead to the nervous system getting stuck in fight-or-flight mode.
Imagine being stuck in the flight, fight, or freeze response as if you're a needle on a spinning record. You're caught in a continuous loop, replaying the same stress-inducing pattern of thoughts and reactions. Breaking free from this loop is akin to lifting the needle and moving to a new groove, allowing for a different, more harmonious tune in life.
Understanding the Fight-or-Flight Response
Before we delve into how you can tell if your nervous system is stuck in fight-or-flight mode, let's first understand what this response entails. The "fight-flight-freeze response" is our body's natural response to perceived danger and is connected to the release of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.
In the "flight" response, the body's surge of adrenaline helps mobilise stored energy, providing the physical stamina needed to escape from danger. Meanwhile, cortisol assists in managing the body's stress response, ensuring that necessary resources are allocated to muscles and away from non-essential functions. This hormonal interplay reflects the body's evolutionary adaptation, prioritising immediate survival over long-term well-being when it perceives a threat.
In the "fight" response, a similar cascade of hormones is activated, with adrenaline preparing the body for confrontation. Cortisol, often known as the stress hormone, heightens alertness, sharpens focus, and enhances the body's ability to respond quickly to the perceived threat. The presence of these chemicals is a testament to the body's dynamic capacity to adapt its internal environment based on the external circumstances, ensuring the best chances of survival.
The "freeze" response, on the other hand, still involves the release of these stress-related hormones, but it results in a state of immobility. In this case, cortisol and adrenaline may contribute to the perception of time slowing down, allowing the individual to assess the situation and make decisions about how best to ensure their safety, even if that means staying perfectly still. The intricate interplay of these hormones showcases the body's remarkable ability to adapt to a multitude of life-threatening scenarios, prioritising survival above all else.
And let's just take a moment to think about the subconscious mind, which ultimately is in responsible for your nervous system stuck in fight or flight.
The subconscious mind is a vital and often overlooked aspect of human psychology, playing a pivotal role in our daily lives. It is responsible for over 90% of our actions, silently steering our behaviour in the background. This unassuming powerhouse keeps us safe by constantly processing information, identifying patterns, and making split-second decisions to protect us from harm.
Consider the fact that we don't consciously think about breathing or walking; these functions are effortlessly orchestrated by the subconscious mind.
Furthermore, in moments of urgency or life threatening situations:-
- Making an emergency stop while driving to avoid a car accident, our foot instinctively reaches for the brake pedal before we even consciously register the danger. This automatic response is a testament to the incredible efficiency and protective instincts of the subconscious mind, which works tirelessly to safeguard us in countless situations, often without us even realising it.
- Avoiding a Slip or Fall: Imagine you're walking on a wet or slippery surface, and suddenly your foot starts to slide. Without conscious thought, your subconscious mind rapidly calculates the angle, velocity, and friction of the surface, and it instinctively adjusts the position of your body and limbs to regain balance and prevent a potentially harmful fall. It's your subconscious mind's lightning-fast response that often keeps you on your feet in such situations.
- Catching a Falling Object: When you accidentally drop a fragile object, your subconscious mind often springs into action without a moment's hesitation. It calculates the object's trajectory and speed and coordinates your hand's movement to intercept and catch the falling item, all before you consciously register the object is falling. This subconscious reflex helps prevent damage and potential injuries that might occur if you had to consciously think about catching the object.
8 Signs of the Nervous System Stuck Fight or Flight
If your nervous system remains stuck in flight or fight mode for an extended period, it can lead to various physical and psychological symptoms. Here are some signs that may indicate your nervous system is stuck in flight or fight:
These are excellent examples of how prolonged activation of the fight or flight response can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. It underscores the importance of managing stress and finding ways to activate the body's relaxation response, which can counteract these negative consequences and promote overall well-being.
- Health Problems, such as Chronic Fatigue: The subconscious mind can inadvertently trigger the fight or flight response in response to various stressors, believing it's safeguarding us from potential threats. When this response is chronically activated, the body remains in a state of high alert, depleting energy resources and ultimately leading to chronic fatigue. It's as though the subconscious mind perceives a constant need for heightened vigilance, resulting in an exhausting cycle.
- Sleep Problems: An overactive subconscious mind can disrupt sleep patterns as it remains vigilant even during nighttime hours. It might perceive potential threats in the environment, making it challenging to enter a relaxed state necessary for sleep. This continual alertness, rooted in the belief that it's protecting us during our vulnerable moments, can lead to difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep.
- Digestive Issues: Chronic stress can cause the subconscious mind to focus on perceived threats at the expense of the digest system. It believes that directing resources away from digestion and towards the fight or flight response is a way to keep us safe. This can lead to digestive problems like constipation, diarrhea, or irritable bowel syndrome, as the body prioritizes immediate survival over long-term well-being.
- Crippling Anxiety and Depression: The subconscious mind, in its efforts to protect us, can amplify anxious thoughts and negative emotions when it perceives danger. While its intention is to keep us vigilant, the result can be heightened anxiety and, in severe cases, depression. The subconscious mind constantly scans for threats, and when it interprets situations as risky, it reinforces anxious or depressive thought patterns.
- Frequent Illness: The subconscious mind's belief that a heightened state of alertness is necessary for survival can compromise the immune system. It reallocates resources away from immune functions, making us more vulnerable to illnesses. This can lead to more frequent infections, as the subconscious mind focuses on immediate perceived threats rather than long-term health.
- Difficulty Concentrating: In a constant state of readiness, the subconscious mind can make it challenging to focus on tasks that require sustained attention. It's as though it believes that multitasking or rapid shifts in focus are vital for our safety, which can lead to difficulties concentrating on a single task.
- Panic attacks: During an attack, the body surges with adrenaline and other stress hormones, leading to symptoms like rapid breathing, fast heart rate, shortness of breath, and a feeling of impending doom. It's as though the subconscious mind is convinced that danger is always imminent, perpetuating a cycle of panic and distress.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): In extreme cases the overactive trauma response can lead to PTSD, the subconscious mind might retain vivid and distressing memories, as it perceives these traumatic memories as potential threats. It constantly replays these memories, believing that being prepared for similar events is essential for our safety. This results in flashbacks of the past trauma and emotional distress, which are key features of PTSD.
Understanding the subconscious mind's intentions in these situations can be a crucial step in addressing these issues. Managing stress and retraining the subconscious mind to recognise real threats from perceived ones can help restore a sense of balance and well-being.
In modern life, most of us rarely find ourselves in genuinely life-threatening situations, yet we often contend with a steady build-up of stressors. These accumulating stressors can be likened to drops filling a metaphorical "stress bucket."
Examples of these modern, non-threatening stressors include the pressures of tight work deadlines, financial worries, daily traffic congestion, and the constant deluge of information from digital devices.
Once this bucket overflows with the weight of accumulated negativity, it becomes increasingly challenging to empty it. As the stress bucket brims, the brain perceives it as a potential danger in need of immediate attention, and it activates the fight or flight response, even in situations where it may not be warranted. This imbalance between perceived threat and actual danger is a hallmark of our contemporary lives, and it underscores the importance of managing stress effectively to prevent the continuous activation of the body's stress response system.
7 Self help strategies for re-setting the Nervous System Stuck in Fight or Flight response:
- Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness serves as a powerful tool for regulating the body's alarm system. By practicing techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and yoga, individuals can bring their awareness to the present moment, reminding our brain that we are safe. This shift activities parasympathetic system, often referred to as the body's "rest and digest" state, is crucial for finding a sense of safety in a modern world filled with life stressors. Mindfulness practices provide a structured and effective way to retrain the subconscious mind, helping it distinguish between real threats and perceived ones.
- Spending time in Nature: When we hear natures natural tune, the nervous system relaxes all by itself. Tension and stress are replaced by calm, and the immune system and pain management systems begin to work more optimally. Take a read of Dr David Hamilton's blog on "The Healing sound of Nature" back up by scientific evidence.
- Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity is instrumental in stress reduction and promoting relaxation. It allows the body to expend energy in a constructive manner, signaling to the subconscious mind that the perceived threats have been addressed and offering a hit of dopamine to enhance the overall sense of well-being. By doing so, exercise aids in re-establishing a sense of safety and calm, effectively countering the long-term impacts of chronic stress.
- Adequate Sleep: Sleep is an integral part of allowing the nervous system to recover and recharge. It's during sleep that the body undergoes crucial repair and restoration processes, akin to emptying the stress bucket. Without sufficient rest, the nervous system remains on high alert, making it challenging to manage stress effectively. Prioritising sleep is a non-negotiable aspect of stress management, as it ensures the nervous system is functioning optimally and can better respond to life's demands, promoting a sense of calm and overall well-being.
- Balanced Diet: A well-rounded diet is essential for maintaining good physical health, and it also directly affects the functioning of the nervous system. Consuming a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains provides the necessary nutrients for the nervous system's proper operation. These nutrients support various neurotransmitters and hormones that regulate stress responses. A balanced diet can contribute to the effective management of the body's alarm system, helping it cope with daily challenges.
- Cultivating a Positive Mindset: By actively engaging in optimistic and constructive thought patterns, individuals can improve their overall mental and emotional well-being. Positive thinking, in essence, reframes a stressful situation into a challenges, opposed to a danger. It encourages a more resilient and adaptive response to stressors, thus enhancing coping abilities, reduced emotional strain, and improved overall health, illustrating the profound influence of one's mental outlook on the functioning of the body's stress response system.
- Seek Professional Help: If stress symptoms persist, despite trying these strategies, it's vital to reach for professional help. Hypnotherapy is a great therapeutic approach worth considering, given its unique ability to directly engage with the subconscious mind and effectively reprogram neural pathways, essentially re-setting the brain into a state of safety.
As a certified hypnotherapist, I have successfully assisted numerous individuals in re-setting their neuro-pathways, enabling them to lead a life filled with calm and confidence. It is not uncommon for my clients to share their experiences of feeling a profound shift in their inner world after our hypnotherapy sessions.
Many describe a sensation where their conscious thoughts and emotions no longer seem tightly connected to their inner selves. This transformation often results in a sense of liberation and personal growth, as it allows them to break free from irrational feelings of unease and an impending sense of doom that may have previously held them back. Through hypnotherapy, we work together to release these emotional burdens and help you step into a brighter, more confident future."
If you would like further information, please feel free to reach out to me for an informal chat.
In conclusion, while the fight-or-flight response is a crucial survival mechanism, prolonged activation due to chronic stress or trauma can lead to various physical and psychological health issues. Recognising the signs that your nervous system is stuck in fight or flight mode is the first step towards addressing this issue. Implementing mindfulness practices, regular exercise, balanced diet, adequate sleep and seeking professional help when necessary are all effective strategies for resetting your nervous system back to its normal state.