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  • Isabelle Morley, PsyD

Fight or Flight: When Anxiety Takes Over

Anxiety can become paralyzing, but understanding what anxiety is can help you learn how to manage it when you the fight-or-flight (or freeze!) response takes over.

This poor fish had no choice in the matter, it's mid-flight and unable to fight!

Survival of the Fittest

Most of us have a bad connotation with the word anxiety, but anxiety has an important evolutionary purpose for humans. When faced with a life threatening situation (think: encountering an angry bear in the woods), the fight-or-flight response turns on our sympathetic nervous system, jumpstarting our bodies into action so that we can protect and save ourselves (as in: run away from the bear, or fight the bear but that's not recommended).

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is an activation system, a switch that puts us in action mode. Unnecessary bodily functions are turned off, such as digestion, so that energy can be redirected elsewhere. Our eyes dilate, our heart starts beating faster, we sweat, we breathe more heavily, and our bodies prepare for fight-or-flight in response to the stressor.

Another lesser known response when our SNS is activated is freeze, when we are paralyzed by the anxiety. However, this is also adaptive at times. Think of when a bunny freezes as a coyote walks by, hoping the predator doesn't see it. Sometimes pausing and doing nothing, although it can feel even more anxiety provoking ("I have to get this done but I'm too stressed to do it!"), can give you the time you need to better assess the situation, lower your stress level, and make a good plan of attack.

Our ancestors depended on the fight-or-flight response. It helped them fight off predators or escape from dangerous situations, and thus this reaction served an important evolutionary purpose. Even though modern life is much safer, this response is still deeply ingrained in our brains and bodies. Nowadays, giving a presentation at work or being in large crowds can cause immense anxiety and trigger the fight-or-flight response.

Understanding why we get anxiety and what it feels like can help you anticipate triggers and better manage it when it occurs. Although we don't often encounter dangerous wild predators anymore, there are other stressors that can cause the same intense fight-or-flight reaction in our bodies. Even though we are safe from harm, giving a presentation at work or being in large crowds can cause immense anxiety and trigger the fight-or-flight response.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Like all of our emotional states, anxiety is a combination of physical sensations, psychological symptoms, and biological causes (changes in hormones and neurotransmitters). Together, these experiences create a sense of heightened nervousness or stress that can feel very distressing. Some common symptoms are:

Physical Sensations

Rapid heart beat

Sweaty or shaky hands

Stomach pain, nausea

Shortness of breath

Chest tightness



Psychological Symptoms

Difficulty concentrating or focusing

Memory issues

Racing thoughts about worries

Strategies for Managing Anxiety

There are some research-based ways that can help you lower your anxiety when the fight-or-flight response has kicked your body into overdrive. But if they don't help, or your anxiety is chronic and intense, don't hesitate to seek help.

So what should you do when you anxious? There are a few strategies you can try to help your body return to its baseline.

1. Breathe.

Take three deep, slow breaths. In through your nose, and out through your nose. Slow down your breathing as much as possible. Focus on the sensations of the cold air

coming into your body and the warmer air leaving. Try counting to 7 as you inhale,

holding your breath for 5, counting to 7 as your exhale, and pausing for 5, then repeat.

2. Grounding Strategies.

Using grounding strategies can help refocus your attention from your anxiety and give

your body a chance to calm down. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy: find 5 things that you can

see, find 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1

thing you can taste.

3. Ice or Cold.

Cooling your body down can help lower your anxiety. Drink some ice cold water, go

outside if it's cold, or put an ice pack on your face and neck. Try an ice dive if you're

anxiety is still high. To do this, fill your sink or a bowl with cold water and ice, take a

deep breath in, and then submerge your face in the cold water for as long as you can

stand. Do this a few times, no more than 3 or 4, or just once if that's all it takes.

4. Nature.

Time and time again, research shows the calming effect of nature. When your anxiety is

high, get out of the house or office and go for a walk. Take a hike if you have the time.

Go someplace with trees, running water, local animals, and as far away from technology

as possible. Keep your phone and headphones in your pocket, take time to listen to the

sounds of the world around you and be fully immersed in your environment.

Need More Help?

These strategies can help you lower your anxiety in the moment, but if you're regularly struggling with high or chronic anxiety, it might be time to seek help. A therapist can help you better manage your anxiety. Don't feel like you have to wait until your anxiety is as bad as you could possibly stand, get help as soon as you feel like you need it!


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