Learn how to navigate the fight or flight response and lower your cortisol.
At its core, the fight or flight response is a survival mechanism hardwired into our biology. Our bodies react to stressors by flooding adrenaline, sharpening our focus, and providing a burst of energy to either face the danger head-on or flee to safety.
Physiologically, this response diverts resources away from non-essential functions like digestion and immune response, focusing instead on immediate survival needs. Your body gears up to react swiftly, but the challenge is that our stressors are often more chronic than immediate.
Over time, this constant activation can lead to negative impacts.
Recognizing the fight or flight response’s role and the effects it has on your body and mind is the first step toward mastering control over it.
While the fight or flight response was designed to be a short-lived survival tool, its persistence in our modern lives has profound consequences for our well-being. When stressors become chronic, they trigger a cascade of effects that reach far beyond the initial moment of tension.
Anxiety Amplified: Prolonged activation of the fight or flight response is closely linked to anxiety. As stress hormones flood your system repeatedly, they can lead to a heightened sense of worry and apprehension. According the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can increase the likelihood of developing anxiety or other mental health problems.
Weakened Immunity: Chronic stress reduces the efficiency of immune responses, leaving you more susceptible to infections and illnesses. The American Psychological Association also details how stress dampens immune function, emphasizing the need to manage stress for a stronger defense against illnesses.
Strain on the Heart: Over time, chronic stress places strain on your cardiovascular system, according to the American Heart Association. The frequent spikes in heart rate and blood pressure that accompany fight or flight activation can contribute to hypertension and increase the risk of heart disease.
Triggers are the cues that set off the fight or flight response. Identifying these triggers is key to better stress management.
Let’s take a closer look at some common triggers that can ignite the response and how you can spot them in your own life.
• Workplace Pressures: Tight deadlines, demanding bosses, and overwhelming workloads can easily put your body on high alert. Pay attention to how your body reacts during work-related stress—do you notice increased heart rate, muscle tension, or shallow breathing?
• Personal Conflicts: Arguments with loved ones or unresolved conflicts can act as potent triggers. Notice if you start to feel defensive, your heart races, or you feel the urge to flee the situation during these moments.
• Financial Concerns: Money matters can trigger both emotional and physiological stress responses. If the thought of bills, debts, or financial instability causes your body to tense up or your mind to race, you’re experiencing a fight or flight reaction.
• Social Pressures: Social situations, like public speaking or meeting new people, can also activate the response. Pay attention to how your body reacts—do you feel flushed, experience rapid breathing, or notice a dry mouth?
By becoming attuned to these triggers, you’re arming yourself with the knowledge to take proactive steps in managing your stress.
Self-awareness is a powerful tool; it empowers you to recognize when the fight or flight response is about to take hold and intervene with the strategies you’ll learn to master.
Deep breaths signal your body to relax, calming the nervous system’s heightened state.
Inhale deeply through your nose for a count of four, hold for four counts, and then exhale slowly through your mouth for another four counts. Repeat this for a few minutes, focusing only on your breath.
For mindfulness, pick an everyday activity—like eating or walking—and fully engage your senses in the experience. Notice the textures, smells, and tastes around you, grounding yourself in the present moment.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing and then releasing muscle groups, allowing you to feel more relaxed. Find a quiet space, and start with your toes, working your way up through your body. Tense each muscle group for a few seconds, then release, feeling the tension melt away. This exercise not only reduces physical tension but also helps ease anxiety.
Your thoughts influence your emotions. Cognitive reframing involves identifying negative thought patterns and replacing them with more positive or balanced perspectives. For example, if you catch yourself catastrophizing a situation, challenge that thought by considering alternative, more realistic outcomes. By doing so, you shift your emotional response and minimize the fight or flight trigger.
Grounding techniques anchor you in the present when stress pulls you into the past or future.
Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method: Name five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Alternatively, engage your senses by focusing on your surroundings. Describe the colors, textures, and sensations around you to center yourself in the now.
Physical activity is a potent stress-buster. Engaging in regular exercise releases endorphins, your body’s natural mood elevators. Whether it’s a brisk walk, a yoga class, or dancing to your favorite tunes, find an activity you enjoy. Aim for at least 30 minutes most days to reap the benefits of reduced stress and increased emotional well-being.
Your diet affects your stress levels. Incorporate whole foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains stabilize blood sugar, preventing energy crashes that can trigger stress. Hydration is equally vital; staying hydrated supports cognitive function and mood regulation.
Sleep and stress have a symbiotic relationship. Poor sleep increases stress, and high stress can disrupt sleep. Establish a calming pre-sleep routine, keep your bedroom comfortable and dark, and aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night. Quality sleep equips you to handle stress more effectively.
Strong social connections act as buffers against stress. Share your feelings with friends, family, or support groups. Communication helps you feel heard, understood, and less isolated. Engaging in meaningful conversations and spending time with loved ones nurtures your emotional well-being.
The grip of fight or flight is not insurmountable. Armed with knowledge and a toolkit of strategies, you’ll be equipped to master the art of calm and regain control over your stress responses.
Healium is an innovative tool to add to your stress-busting arsenal, because it uses real-time data to train your brain and heart so you can self-manage your anxiety, focus, and sleep. Combining immersive meditation experiences with biofeedback grants you the agency over your body’s fight or flight responses.
Healium is validated in peer-reviewed journals and proven to contribute to your mental fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle by:
• Creating positive changes in mood states
• Reducing anxiety
• Elevating levels of empathy
• Helping you fall asleep
If you’re interested in learning how Healium can help you get out of fight or flight, watch the video below!
Sarah Hill, a former interactive TV news journalist at NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates in Missouri, gained recognition for pioneering interactive news broadcasting using Google Hangouts. She is now the CEO of Healium, the world’s first biometrically powered VR/AR channel, helping those with stress, anxiety, insomnia, and other struggles through biofeedback storytelling. With patents, clinical validation, and over seven million views, she has reshaped the landscape of immersive media.