Techniques to Tame the Fight-or-Flight Response

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If you've ever been in a highly stressful situation, you've likely experienced the fight-or-flight response. Your pulse races, your breathing speeds up, your pupils dilate—all in response to a perceived danger.

These symptoms serve an important purpose in some situations, but they can feel disruptive and uncomfortable in others. Someone with a mental health condition, for example, may have an overactive fight-or-flight response that can be triggered frequently, even when they're not in danger.

In these situations, there are techniques you can use to calm the fight-or-flight response and alleviate the symptoms of acute stress. Deep breathing, relaxation strategies, physical activity, and social support can all help if you are feeling the effects of a fight-or-flight response.

What Is the Fight-or-Flight Response?

When we're faced with a situation that causes extreme anxiety or fear, our bodies will respond with a sudden, involuntary display of symptoms like:

  • A racing heart
  • Balled fists
  • Dilated pupils
  • Shallow, rapid breathing
  • Tensed muscles

These physical reactions are what we call the fight-or-flight response (also known as hyperarousal or the acute stress response). This occurs when the perception of a threat triggers a cascade of physiological changes and the brain sets off an alarm throughout the central nervous system.

As a result, the adrenal glands will start pumping out hormones, called adrenaline and noradrenaline, which place the body on high alert to either confront the threat ("fight") or leave as quickly as possible ("flight"). These physiological changes serve specific, important functions:

  • Rapid pulse and respiration increase your oxygen supply for fast and/or prolonged action.
  • The conversion of your body's fuel source (glycogen) to fuel (glucose) allows for a burst of energy in your muscles.
  • The dilation of your pupils allows more light into your eyes, helping you to see better at night.

The fight-or-flight response is reflexive, and it allows us to act before thinking (such as slamming on the brakes to avoid an accident).

How to Calm the Fight-or-Flight Response

Since the fight-or-flight response is a reflex, you can't control when and where it occurs. However, you can use self-help techniques to calm down and alleviate the symptoms.

Deep Breathing

One technique involves a three-part breathing exercise, which allows you to voluntarily slow your breathing. This can also bring down both your heart rate and adrenaline response.

The exercise, which incorporates some of the technique of pranayama breathing in yoga, involves six basic steps:

  1. Find a place that's quiet. Turn off your phone and close doors and curtains.
  2. Sit in a straight-back chair with both feet on the ground or lie on the floor.
  3. Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your rib cage so that you can physically feel your inhalation and exhalation.
  4. Start inhaling by expanding the belly outward, allowing it to inflate like a balloon.
  5. Next, move your breath into the rib cage and all the way into the upper chest.
  6. Exhale by reversing this action, contracting your abdominal muscles as you finish.

You can practice this in one-minute intervals with the goal of gradually increasing to five minutes.

The practice may not only help alleviate acute attacks, but it can also be used to de-stress as part of a daily routine.

Relaxation Practices

Aside from deep breathing, there are several other relaxation techniques you can use to bring yourself out of the fight-or-flight response.

Visualization is one method that involves using mental imagery to picture yourself in a calming location. Similar to daydreaming, visualization exercises require you to imagine yourself in a relaxing place, like a peaceful beach or secluded field, while focusing on the details of those surroundings.

Mantra meditation is another way to reach a more relaxed state. This form of meditation relies on a mantra, or chosen word or phrase, that's repeated throughout the practice. Your mantra can be anything you choose, and you can repeat it out loud or silently throughout the meditation.

Physical Activity

Engaging in light physical exercise may help regulate your breathing, reduce your muscle tension, and distract you from the cause of your acute stress. Some options include:

  • Yoga, which may improve your ability to recover after a stressful event
  • Tai chi, which could affect how your body reacts to stress and even improve your ability to cope with it
  • Walking and walking meditation, which may reduce blood pressure (especially when combined with other relaxation techniques)

Social Support

Reaching out to family or friends for social support may help you cope in a moment of acute stress, and maintaining close relationships is beneficial for your overall well-being. In fact, one study found that the presence of social support helped reduce the negative effects of stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Complementary Therapies

Other non-prescription treatment options include valerian root and passionflower (herbal supplements commonly used as non-addictive relaxants) and B-complex vitamins, which may help regulate stress chemicals produced by the brain. You should also consider avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine during a fight-or-flight response.

Treatment for Abnormal Fight-or-Flight Response

While the fight-or-flight response is a vital self-defense mechanism, some people have an overly sensitive response. For these individuals, the symptoms occur either far too frequently, or they happen at inappropriate times. There may be several reasons for this:

  • An imbalance in brain hormones, such as in anxiety and bipolar disorders
  • Post-traumatic distress
  • A history of verbal or physical abuse
  • The existence of panic disorder
  • Coming into contact with the object of a phobia

It's not only exhausting to spend so much time in a state of high alert, but it can also be physically damaging. The physical consequences of acute stress can include high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and exacerbation of fibromyalgia, chronic gastritis, and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) symptoms.

If you have an abnormal fight-or-flight response, your treatment will likely involve counseling and psychotherapy to better identify the psychological or psychiatric roots of the issue. In some cases, your doctor may recommend medication, particularly if you're experiencing severe anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A Word From Verywell

Whether it's a symptom of a mental health condition or the result of being in a dangerous situation, we will all find ourselves in the fight-or-flight response at some point. Regardless of what prompts it, being in this state isn't a comfortable experience. Learning to calm yourself down is a valuable tool that can help you manage your reaction to acute stress and improve your overall well-being.

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Additional Reading

By Marcia Purse
Marcia Purse is a mental health writer and bipolar disorder advocate who brings strong research skills and personal experiences to her writing.