How To Tame Your Fight-Or-Flight Response In 3 Simple Steps
When was the last time a tiger chased you down? Chances are, never. But your body thinks it's happening all the time! Even now as you're reading this, sipping on your tea or coffee and totally safe inside your house or apartment, it's quite possible that your body is in flight-or-fight mode. You might be thinking about the new project you got assigned at work. Doesn't your boss know how much you already have on your plate? Or, you might be worrying about your relationship, your health, or the fact that you have way more to do this week than you can possibly manage. How will you get it all done?
As your mind races through all these situations, it sends signals to your body that you're in danger. Your body reacts. Your heart beats faster, your breath gets shallow, and digestion gets thrown off. You might wonder why this is happening and whether you're the only one who feels like they are consistently on the verge of panic.
Well, I'm here to tell you that you're not alone. It's your sympathetic fight-or-flight response kicking in. As a physician, ayurveda lifestyle consultant, and yoga instructor, I see patients struggling with the same thing all the time. In fact, it happens to everyone, and it's happening in epic proportions these days in our country.
The sympathetic nervous system and what you can do to tame it.
So, what's this sympathetic fight-or-flight response? And what can you do to feel more at ease in your daily life? The sympathetic nervous system governs your fight-flight-freeze reaction, kicking into gear anytime your body senses danger. This was helpful in the hunter-gatherer days when there were many more life-or-death situations. Back then, a human's innate intelligence kicked in and the sympathetic response made his or her heart beat faster, breath become more shallow, and eyes dilate (to take in the situation). Everything in your body and mind focused on the one impending danger, which was lifesaving.
Here's the deal, though. You're not living the hunter-gatherer life anymore. There's no giant animal chasing you down. The problem is that your body often mistakes your boss, colleague, or bumper-to-bumper traffic on the way to work for a tiger, and naturally, it reacts in the same way it would have thousands of years ago.
And even if there was a tiger chasing you in 2019, you're meant to stay in sympathetics for only a few minutes at a time. The tiger approaches, you make your move, get to safety, and then rest. You're not meant to stay in this fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time. When you do, you start to experience the consequences in the form of adrenal fatigue, obesity, insomnia, and anxiety.
How to reset your nervous system in three easy steps.
The good news is that you can calm down your parasympathetic nervous system response and get your body back to a state of calm. The key is to somehow let your body know that you're safe. There's no tiger. There may be a few people doing things you don't like, but you're safe. You're not in physical danger. When you tell your body that it's safe, your body shifts into parasympathetic mode, which acts like an antidote to the sympathetic fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system governs your rest-and-digest processes. This means it signals your heart rate to slow down, your breathing to become deeper and longer, your digestion to start back up again, and allows you to fall asleep.
So, how do you tell your body it's safe? Follow these three steps:
1. Practice awareness.
It all starts with this awareness, so simply recognizing what it feels like to be in fight-or-flight mode can help. When you know what your body is doing and why, you can do something about it. So give a name to whatever it is you are feeling physically and why. When you name it, you give it less power. Remember to do this without judgment; you can't blame your body for a natural biological response!
2. Breathe deeply and to the count of four.
When your sympathetics get triggered, your breath gets shallow. It happens in an instant. But, here's the secret: You have the power to change your breath, and it can be enough to get you out of this sympathetic state. All you need to do is count your breath and breathe in for a count of four. Then, breathe out for a count of four. Repeat five times. This is conscious breathing. When you do this, two things happen. First, you get more oxygen to your cells. This feels amazing to your body. Second, you shift into parasympathetic rest-and-digest mode by your focus on the exhale.
3. Assess the situation with a clearer mind.
Look around. What's actually going on in your physical space? Allow your mind to recognize that, although they're unpleasant and most definitely challenging to deal with, none of the threats you're currently reacting to are life or death. Give your body this information and let it sink in. You're safe.
When you follow these three steps, a few things will happen. First, you'll respond better to the situation. This is because you've shifted from a reactionary response to a place of intention. This'll definitely help your relationships. Second, you'll improve your health. By giving your body a chance to rest and recover, you'll see improvements in your sleep, digestion, and mood. And that's something to look forward to!
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Dr. Ajmani is a board-certified pediatrician, ayurveda lifestyle consultant, and yoga instructor. She received a B.S. from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and completed her medical degree at Eastern Virginia Medical School. She’s passionate about helping people find peace and love within themselves. She believes that self-love is the foundation for a healthy and fulfilled life. Learn about her coaching, courses, and speaking engagements at www.sheetalajmani.com.