Nervous System Stuck in Fight or Flight: Management Tips

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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Published on

June 05, 2024

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Updated on

June 05, 2024

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Robert Stevens

Nervous System Regulation

The human body's response to stress is a complex system designed to help us navigate threats and challenges. However, when this system is constantly activated, it can lead to numerous health issues. If you are experiencing heightened anxiety, digestive issues, elevated cortisol, or trouble sleeping, you may have a nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

This post explores the mechanisms of the fight or flight response, its effects on our well-being, and practical strategies for restoring balance to a dysregulated nervous system.

At re-origin, we’ve helped hundreds of people get out of excessive fight or flight so they can start feeling like themselves again. Our neuroscience-backed brain retraining program can help you manage your symptoms, calm your nervous system, and help you heal! If you are interested in hearing more, sign up for a free info call today.

What are  Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn?

The response mechanisms of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are all part of the body’s innate ways of dealing with perceived dangers and threats. These responses are deeply rooted in our survival instincts and are triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, which prepares the body to handle stressful situations. Let's delve into each response and its significance.

Fight Response

The fight response is triggered when an individual perceives a threat and confronts it head-on. This response is characterized by an increase in stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for physical action, including heightened alertness, increased blood flow to muscles, and a boost in energy and strength. This response is meant to empower the individual to defend themselves against physical dangers aggressively.1

Flight Response

The flight response is another form of acute stress reaction where the individual chooses to escape the threatening situation rather than confront it. Similar to the fight response, the body releases stress hormones, which increase heart rate, blood pressure, and energy levels, all aimed at maximizing the body’s ability to flee quickly. The flight response is typically triggered in the face of a threat or a psychological danger that seems too overwhelming to confront directly.

Freeze Response

The freeze response occurs when an individual feels neither fighting nor fleeing is possible. In this state, the person may become immobilized on the spot or feel like they cannot move or act. This response can be seen as the body’s way of playing dead to avoid attracting further attention from a predator or threat. During a freeze, physiological functions such as heart rate might slow down, and the person might feel numb or detached from reality, which can be a protective form of disassociation during extreme fear.1

Fawn Response

The fawn response is less well-known but increasingly recognized as a stress response, especially in complex social or interpersonal situations. This response involves using people-pleasing behaviors to diffuse conflict, avoid confrontation, or appease a perceived threat. Individuals who exhibit a fawn response might go out of their way to accommodate others to reduce the danger they perceive, often at the expense of their own needs or safety. This response is particularly common in situations where physical escape or confrontation is not viable, such as in cases of emotional or physical demands or psychological manipulation.1

Each of these responses—fight, flight, freeze, and fawn—represents a different strategy the nervous system employs to protect the individual from physical danger or harm. While these responses can be life-saving in dangerous situations, when triggered needlessly in everyday stressors, they can lead to an overactive nervous system and various health challenges. Understanding these responses and recognizing when they occur can be the first step toward managing stress more effectively and fostering a healthier,  balanced nervous system.

Symptoms of a Nervous System Stuck in Fight or Flight

A nervous system stuck in fight or flight can manifest through various physical and physiological changes, in addition to psychological symptoms:

  • High blood pressure and rapid heartbeat
  • Elevated cortisol levels
  • Heightened alertness to surroundings
  • Muscle tension and headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Brain fog and chronic fatigue
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep 
  • Persistent feelings of being overwhelmed or on edge

These symptoms are indicative of the sympathetic nervous system being in a prolonged state of activation, often due to chronic stress.2

Long-Term Effects of Constant Fight or Flight Mode

When the body is stuck in fight or flight mode beyond what it experiences during a stressful event, it can lead to several chronic conditions. The adrenal glands may continuously release stress hormones, which can wear down the body's health, leading to high blood pressure, weight gain, and impaired immune function. Mental health can also suffer, resulting in anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances.2

How to Get Your Nervous System Out of Fight or Flight

Transitioning your central nervous system out of this constant state of alert involves engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, which acts as a brake to the body's stress response. Techniques include:

Brain Retraining

Brain retraining techniques are crucial methods for helping your nervous system transition out of the constant fight or flight mode by essentially ‘reprogramming’ the brain's reactions to stressors. These techniques focus on strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the autonomic nervous system that counterbalances the fight or flight response by promoting relaxation and ease.

Deep Breathing

By consciously controlling your breathing and focusing on slow, deep breaths, you activate the vagus nerve. This activation is key in signaling the body to shift from stress-induced responses to a state of calm. Deep breathing exercises not only reduce the immediate physiological effects of the acute stress response but also help retrain the brain and body to manage stress more effectively.3

Physical Activity

Exercise naturally elevates mood through the release of endorphins and helps reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. By incorporating regular physical activity into your routine, your body reduces built-up tension and stress hormones in a healthy way.4

Mindfulness

A regular practice of mindfulness involves observing present-moment experiences in a non-judgmental way, which can diminish the brain's stress response. This helps to decrease the frequency and intensity of being in a fight or flight state and promotes greater emotional resilience.3

Ten Ways to Calm Down and Restore Balance

  1. Use Relaxation Techniques: Techniques like progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery can help in reducing muscle tension and stress.
  2. Connect Socially: Support from friends and family can provide significant stress relief.4
  3. Spend Time in Nature: Exposure to fresh air and natural environments can be incredibly restorative.
  4. Become Creative: Activities like cooking, baking, drawing, writing, or painting increase prefrontal cortex activity, thus calming the nervous system and turning off fight or flight.4
  5. Practice Mindfulness: These techniques can help center thoughts and reduce the perception of stress.3
  6. Practice Deep Breathing: Engage in diaphragmatic breathing to help control stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.3
  7. Engage in Regular Physical Activity: Find an exercise routine or activity that you enjoy and make it a regular part of your life.4
  8. Get Adequate Sleep: Prioritize sleep to help regulate stress hormones and recover from daily stressors.
  9. Establish a Routine: Daily structure can enhance feelings of stability and decrease stress.
  10. Seek Professional Help: There are various professional resources that can provide strategies and support for managing stress. At re-origin, we can help you retrain your brain to respond differently to stressors, helping you reduce the incidence of entering a fight or flight response.

You Can Exit Fight or Flight Mode and Enhance Your Well-being

Having a nervous system stuck in fight or flight can be debilitating; however, understanding the underlying mechanisms and knowing how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system can offer significant relief. By incorporating these strategies into your daily life, you can help your body navigate stress more effectively, leading to improved overall health and well-being.

Remember, if you are struggling to manage stress, it is important to seek help from a mental health professional. Your well-being is paramount; you can regain control over your health and life with the right tools and support.

At re-origin, our main focus is helping  you calm your nervous system in order to leave   fight or flight and return to yourself again! If you are interested in learning more about the re-origin program, please sign up for a free info call.

References

  1. Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 23(4), 263-287. https://doi.org/10.1097/HRP.0000000000000065
  2. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). How stress affects your body. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress/body
  3. Mental Health Systems DBT. (n.d.). Parasympathetic nervous system and trauma. Retrieved from https://www.mhs-dbt.com/blog/parasympathetic-nervous-system-and-trauma/
  4. University of Wollongong. (2024). Stuck in fight or flight mode. Retrieved from https://www.uow.edu.au/media/2024/stuck-in-fight-or-flight-mode.php

By

Katie Rapkoch, CHPC

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