How to calm your fight or flight response
You may have heard the term Fight or Flight, which is essentially the way our body responds to threat or danger. Consider this, a bear wanders into the room… what would you do? How would you feel? Where would your attention be?
For most of us our focus would be completely on the bear, our thoughts may be racing to try and figure out what to do next, our heart rate and breathing rate may increase to bring in more oxygen to power our muscles, our muscles would become tense or even shake so they are ready for action, and we may even feel a sudden burst of energy.
At this point, we would be ready to either fight or run from a very real threat.
But what if there was actually no danger? Sometimes (for many reasons), our body and mind may interpret situations or sensations as dangerous, when in fact, we are actually safe. This is when we experience symptoms of anxiety.
In today’s blog we will focus on some basic anxiety-management strategies and grounding exercises that you can use when you experience symptoms of anxiety.
Grounding strategies can be particularly useful to bring us into the ‘here and now’. Being in the ‘here and now’ is a helpful way to calm our body down when we may be caught up worrying, preoccupied with how our body feels, panicking, or experiencing flashbacks from traumatic events.
Grounding techniques rely on our senses to bring us into the ‘now’ where we can identify if the threat or danger we are feeling is, in fact, real or not. This helps us to turn the fight or flight system off when it’s not needed. Here are a few of our favourite techniques:
- Simply name 5 things you can see around you, 5 things you can hear, and 5 things you can feel touching your body. Then name 4 things you can see, hear, and touch, followed by 3 things you can see, hear, and touch, and keep going until you reach 1 of each.
- Choose a colour and name all the objects that you can see around you in that colour.
- Go through the letters of the alphabet and name an animal and food starting with each letter.
- Shake your hands in front of your face, clap and rub your hands together (listening to the sound and feeling the sensation in your arms and hands).
- Hold mug of hot chocolate in your hands and feel the warmth, or a cold glass of water and feel the cool. Take small sips and focus on the sensations of smell, taste, and temperature.
- Briefly place a frozen bag of peas or an icepack on the back of your neck.
If you struggle to remember some of the strategies above on the spot, it could be a good idea to make a grounding tool kit. This is a physical toolkit that you can become quite creative with and customise. It may be a box or bag filled with sensory objects that will help you get to the ‘now’ by getting you to use your five senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing). Here are some ideas below:
- Sight—A photo of someone you love, photo of a pet, picture of a safe place or a place filled with happy memories, a flashcard with some of the above and below strategies written, drawing or art materials.
- Smell—essential oils, vanilla, plants (i.e., lavender, rose petals, herbs), smelly stationary (stickers, pens etc.).
- Taste—mints, gum, hard or sour lollies, strong tasting foods.
- Touch—plants, fabric, stress ball, magic sand, slime, silly putty, Lego blocks, fidget toys, playdough, lip balm, hand cream.
- Hearing—headphones for music, bell or chimes, whistle.
Progressive muscle relaxation training
Another great way to turn off the fight or flight system is to engage in progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves tensing and releasing various muscle groups in your body. After some practice, you will learn what the sensations of tension and relaxation feel like, notice where you are holding tension in your body and learn to let it go into a relaxed state. The Centre for Clinical Interventions has written a great guide here on how to do this.
Finally, learning to manage and regulate your breathing is an important way to calm your body. Dr Esha Jamnadass has written a great blog at Lawson Clinical Psychology ‘Just breath: How breathing affects the mind and body’. Check it out to learn more.
Learning ways to turn off your fight or flight response when it is not needed is valuable way to improving your overall well-being. If you want to learn more feel free to get in touch with our psychologists here at Lawson Clinical Psychology to learn more.
Written by Dr Caitlin Pearcy, Clinical Psychologist
If you would like to learn more about calming an overactive fight or flight response or to book an appointment with Dr Caitlin Pearcy or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.
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