Changes triggered by the flight or fight response include:
- increase in alertness
- increase in heart rate and blood pressure, to pump extra blood to the muscles
- extra blood goes to the skin and sweating increases to help cool the body
- muscles tense ready for action
- blood is diverted away from the gastrointestinal system, digestion of recent meals slows down, and any waste products already in the bowel are hurried along
- saliva decreases causing a dry mouth
- breathing rate speeds up (nostrils and air passages in the lungs open wider to get in air more quickly)
- liver releases sugar to provide quick energy
- sphincter muscles contract to close the openings of the bowel and bladder
The fight or flight response is designed to help us escape from physically threatening situations, however it also responds to perceived threat, such as feeling the threat of a loss of some type.
The strength of the anxiety response will relate to how likely you believe the consequences of the threat will happen, and to how catastrophic you believe they will be. An anxiety disorder arises when the fight or flight response is repeatedly triggered at a too low a threshold, by situations that do not actually represent a threat to survival.
Anxiety disorders are distinguished from everyday, normal anxiety in that they involve anxiety that:
- is more intense (for example panic attacks)
- lasts longer (anxiety may persist for months instead of going away after a stressful situation has passed)
- Ieads to phobias that interfere with your life
A panic attack is a sudden spell of feeling frightened, anxious or very uneasy. It is essentially a severe flight or fight reaction. Symptoms typically come on suddenly and escalate over the next 5 to 10 minutes.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- feeling short or breath
- pounding heart
- trembling or shaking
- trembling or croaking voice
- nausea or fear of vomiting
- dizziness or light-headedness
- tingling in the fingers or feet
- tightness or pain in the chest
- a choking or smothering feeling
- hot or cold flushes
- feelings of unreality
- a feeling that you cannot get your thoughts together or speak
- an urge to flee
- a fear that you might die
- a fear that you might act in a crazy way
Ironically, it's often the fear of anxiety (anxiety about anxiety) and the trying to get rid of it that prolongs the anxiety itself. When we fear the consequences of anxiety, we can become afraid of even small amounts of anxiety in case it escalates out of control. And when we're fearful of anxiety, we often go to great lengths to try to get rid of it. But paradoxically trying to change anxiety can oftentimes get us stuck even further in it.
What we need to remember is that anxiety is simply part of the experience of being human (it's normal!) and can actually be really helpful. In the event of real danger anxiety may even save your life one day. And researchers have found that performance actually improves with increased anxiety to a certain point, then performance begins to decrease as anxiety increases.
Each individual is different, but what I often find really useful is:
- relaxation practices like this one to start to lower your baseline levels of anxiety
- pranayama practices (breathing) to help to reduce and manage anxiety when it arises
- welcoming and listening to sensations and emotions (including anxiety) rather than trying to get rid of them
- a formal daily yoga practice (which may include mindfulness meditation, iRest yoga nidra, pranayama and postures)
- establishing healthy sleeping, eating and exercising routines
- reducing or eliminating caffeine, alcohol and other drugs
- checking with your naturopath/ayurvedic practitioner/doctor to see if there's any deficiencies or other biochemical reasons for anxiety
- increasing self compassion and gratitude
- discovering your life purpose and heartfelt desires, and making changes to start living in accordance with these
If you are experiencing anxiety, a great place to start would be this deep mindful yogic relaxation practice. It will guide you in deeply relaxing and simply being with yourself.
If you'd like some support on your healing journey with anxiety, please get in touch to schedule an appointment. I'm available in person at the Lotus Centre in Mullumbimby (Australia) or online via Skype and would love help you to live a life that is full, joyful, authentic and unconstrained by anxiety.