4 exercises to calm anxiety and cope with fight, flight and freeze response

Your breath can be a powerful tool.

When harnessed correctly, you can ‘trick’ your body out of flight, flight or freeze mode with some simple breathing exercises. In turn, this will help trigger your parasympathetic nervous system and decrease feelings of anxiety, stress or panic.

This article will take a look at the physiological reasons behind fight, flight or freeze mode, how breathing can help and some specific techniques you can practise, so you have coping mechanisms ready to go next time you are feeling stressed, anxious or panicked.

What is the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response

Fight, flight or freeze is a type of stress response that comes from a survival instinct, developed by our ancient ancestors. It’s your body’s natural reaction to danger and it causes hormonal and physiological changes that would allow you to act quickly if you needed to protect yourself – that is, to fight off the danger, flee away from it, or freeze in preparation to protect yourself by fighting or running away.

When you go into fight, flight or freeze mode, you will notice your heart rate increase, your pain perception drop and your hearing sharpen. These changes help you act quickly and efficiently in response to the danger you are facing – for our ancient ancestors, this would have been the choice between battling predictors or fleeing up a tree.

In the modern world, the dangers are different, but the reaction is the same and, because it’s an instinct, it is automatic. We can’t control how and why it starts, but if we can recognise the feelings we get when our body goes into fight, flight or freeze response, we can use coping mechanisms to calm it and ‘trick’ our body into believing there is no danger present.

When might you experience a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response?

Just like our ancestors, we will experience this natural instinct when our life really is in danger. Perhaps we are faced with the threat of a physical attack by a dangerous animal, or indeed, a dangerous human. Other examples could be jumping out of the way of an oncoming bus, the feeling of being unsafe when walking down a street or jogging alone or slamming on your breaks when the car in front of you stops suddenly.

However, in this modern world of stress, over-work and lack of balance, we can experience a fight, flight or freeze response when the situation we’re in isn’t actually life-threatening. Perhaps you’re feeling anxious about a presentation, work meeting or social occasion; or your partner or parent confronts you and you have the overwhelming desire to run away; or you’re about to give a speech at an event and you freeze up, unable to utter a single word.

What happens to our bodies during a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response?

Now for the science bit.

Your fight, flight or freeze response starts in the part of your brain that is responsible for perceived fear. This is called your amygdala.

Your amygdala responds by sending signals to your hypothalamus.

Your hypothalamus then stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which drive your fight, flight or freeze response.

When your autonomic nervous system is stimulated, your body releases the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.

The release of these hormones can cause the following physiological effects:

  • Your heart beats faster. It does this to oxygenate your muscles so you can prepare (freeze) to battle it out (fight) or run away (flight).
  • Your breathing speeds up to deliver more oxygen to your blood.
  • Your hearing will become sharper.
  • Your peripheral vision gets better and your pupils dilate to let in more light.
  • Your blood thickens to prepare your body for injury.
  • You might sweat, you might feel clammy, you might even look pale.
  • Your perception of pain may be temporarily reduced.

If you experience these changes, they will be temporary, usually only lasting up to 30 minutes. The issue with our modern day lifestyle is that we often experience prolonged episodes of high-stress, which can keep our cortisol levels high. This can lead to a number of health problems, including anxiety and depression, headaches, concentration issues, trouble sleeping, weight gain and even heart disease.

How to manage a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response

The first thing to do is recognise your body’s reaction is one of fight, flight or freeze. Next time you feel yourself wanting to defend yourself, run away or completely freeze up, notice what physical signs and symptoms you feel and see. Over time, you can learn to identify what triggers you and prepare yourself with some coping mechanisms that work best for you.

4 exercises to help reduce stress and anxiety

Breathing and ‘noticing’ exercises can be extremely beneficial when you feeling yourself slipping into fight, flight or freeze response. Here are some simple ones you can try.

1. The 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique for Anxiety: This five-step exercise can be very helpful during periods of anxiety or panic by helping to ground you in the present, when your mind is bouncing around between various anxious thoughts. To do it:

  • Acknowledge FIVE things you see around you. It could be a plant, a notepad, a cloud, the blue sky
  • Acknowledge FOUR things you can touch around you. It could be the table, your hands, your feet, your hair.
  • Acknowledge THREE things you can hear. Focus on things you can hear outside of your body, such as birdsong, talking in the distance, the wind through the trees.
  • Acknowledge TWO things you can smell. If you’re inside, it might be the smell of fresh laundry drying, or moisturiser on your skin, or soap in your bathroom. Outside, you might smell freshly cut grass or a neighbour’s bonfire.
  • Acknowledge ONE thing you can taste. Can you taste your morning coffee? What you had for lunch? Your teeth?

2. Alternate nostril breathing. This yogic-style breathing is a great way to calm the nervous system and relieve tension and anxiety. To do it:

  • Sit comfortably with a straight back.
  • Place the tip of your index finger and middle finger from your right hand onto the space between your eyebrows, or your ‘third eye’. I find this helps to focus your attention and can also calm a headache.
  • Place your thumb over your right nostril and gently close it. Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril.
  • Pause. And switch.
  • Place your fourth finger over your left nostril and gently close it. Lift your thumb off your right nostril and breathe out through that nostril only.
  • Pause.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your right nostril.
  • Pause. And switch.
  • Place your thumb over your right nostril and gently close it. Lift your fourth finger off your left nostril and breathe out through that nostril only.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your left nostril.
  • Pause. And switch.
  • Place your fourth finger over your left nostril and gently close it. Lift your thumb off your right nostril and breathe out through that nostril only.
  • Continue this for a few cycles of breath, until you are feeling calmer – for example, your breathing has slowed, your heart rate has dropped, you feel more in control.

3. The 4-4-8 technique. Another meditative-style of breathing that works by calming the nervous system and refocusing the brain. To do it:

  • Sit comfortably, with a straight back. It might help to place your hands on your belly to feel your ribs expand with each breath.
  • Close your eyes to take your attention inwards.
  • Inhale slowly over four counts of time. Count 1-2-3-4 in your head as you breathe in.
  • Make sure you fill your lungs as much as you can. Imagine your lungs filling up like a balloon. If you have your hands on your belly, notice how they expand with the breath.
  • At the top of the breath (the end of the fourth count), hold for 1-2-3-4.
  • Slowly, with control, breathe out for a count of eight. Count in your head 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
  • Notice the pause after count 8, then repeat, breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of four, then breathing out for a count of eight.
  • Continue this for a few cycles of breath, until you are feeling calmer – for example, your breathing has slowed, your heart rate has dropped, you feel more in control.

4. Equal breathing. A simple technique you can practise anywhere. It can be done sitting up, lying down, standing on the bus, or even when driving to combat feelings of road rage – but keep your eyes open, in that case!

  • Start by breathing normally for a few moments and notice the pace and rhythm of the breath.
  • Then slowly inhale to the count of four. 1-2-3-4.
  • Pause at the top of the breath.
  • Slowly exhale to the count of four. 1-2-3-4.
  • Pause at the base of the breath.
  • Try to make sure your inhales and exhales are the same length.
  • Continue this for a few cycles of breath, until you are feeling calmer – for example, your breathing has slowed, your heart rate has dropped, you feel more in control.

In summary

We cannot control our body’s natural response to stress, but with these clever breathing techniques, we can learn to control how we react to that response.

Take some time to practise these techniques so they become second nature. The next time you feel your heart rate increasing in a situation of stress, you will be better prepared to work with your body, calm down the natural reaction and deal with the situation in front of you in a more rational way.

 

References:

  • https://trauma-recovery.ca/impact-effects-of-trauma/fight-flight-freeze-responses/
  • https://happiful.com/recognise-your-fight-or-flight-or-freeze-responses/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/fight-flight-freeze#how-to-cope

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Charli Ferrand

Charli wrote her first novel at the tender age of 9, then dabbled in the idea of becoming a professional ballerina for a few years, before returning to her love of writing, acquiring a BA (Hons) in Journalism, Film & Broadcast from Cardiff University in the UK. A three-month holiday in Australia turned into a 11 year residency, during which Charli cemented her career in PR & Marketing Communications working with some of the biggest brands in the world. She also gained her citizenship, discovered her passion for sustainability and eventually ended up coming full circle, combining her professional skills with her love of the planet and oceans into her role as Editor-in-Chief of Earth Collective. A trained journalist, experienced communications professional and qualified Mental Health First Aider, Charli has her finger on the pulse of the latest political and environmental developments around the world. You can find her writing about current affairs, political activism and mental health.

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