This stress response is our body’s way of ensuring we survive danger. The process begins when the brain perceives a threat through the five senses. The keyword here is ‘perceives’ – it triggers the same internal response irrespective of whether you are actually in danger (being chased by a lion) or safe at home but watching something scary on tv (the daily Covid update for example).
When this happens our brain releases a cascade of hormones to prepare our body to fend off the threat. This creates physical responses that are great if you need to fight, or run away from the lion but less helpful in our modern world when what you really need to do is think straight, plan, problem-solve, communicate, be creative and complete complex tasks!
Freezing is a primal, desperate attempt to stop the predator from spotting you. When this happens it’s common for our mind to slow down and assess the situation. Blood is diverted from the brain and thinking becomes incredibly difficult. It can feel like brain fog and everything, even the simple things, become really difficult.
When facing danger, you assess the threat to determine whether you can defeat it. The spider in the bathroom? Probably. A bear in the woods? Probably not. When you believe you have the power to fight something your muscles tense, your body starts to sweat, your heart beats faster. You act on an impulse to protect yourself – you are spurred into action – you fight.
If you are unable to fight the threat you will need to get to safety fast. Your blood pressure rises and your blood sugar increases. The body releases adrenaline to help you to move quickly to get out the way of danger. When this happens all you are focused on is getting away from ‘perceived’ danger.
Our response (fight, flight or freeze) when stressed is not a choice, it’s an instinctive reaction that we rarely have control over. Often when we have an undesirable response to a stressful situation we beat ourselves up for our behaviour or other people shame, blame and criticise us, making us feel even worse.
This year our basic needs – shelter, warmth, rest, safety and security are being threatened or taken away. On top of that our psychological needs of belonging, love, friendship, self-esteem and accomplishment are also being tested. Many of us are trying to function as normal in a world that is anything but normal, so if you feel like you aren’t firing on all cylinders at the moment and are wondering what’s wrong with you, it’s really important that you recognise you are trying to build on very shaky foundations.
No one is their best self right now! So what can you do? Whilst there are many things that are out of our control right now, thankfully our body has something called the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our rest and digestion. It basically undoes the work of the fight, flight, freeze response after a stressful situation, decreasing our heart rate and slowing our breathing.
The best way to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system is to breathe deeply and focus on the here and now, which can be easier said than done I know. Switch off the media and technology and do something that relaxes and calms you –
- Get outside in nature
- Lose yourself in a fictional book
- Listen to music
- Watch a light-hearted film or series that makes you smile or laugh
- Talk with a good friend
Choose something that you enjoy and find calming. Sometimes, if you find yourself left with nervous, stressful energy long after the stressful situation has passed, it may also be helpful to burn this off with some exercise before you try to relax, just don’t overdo it otherwise you’ll send your body back into a stress response!
Most importantly, when you feel your stress levels start to rise it is not necessarily a time to just push on through. It may feel counterproductive and inconvenient but sometimes the best thing you can do is to give yourself permission to press pause and take a break. When our technology starts to slow down or isn’t functioning properly one of the first things we do is to turn it off and on again.
So before you start beating yourself up for not achieving what you normally achieve, try giving yourself some time to reboot your system. You may find you can return to your situation with more energy, clarity and creativity, increasing your productivity, reducing your stress levels and positively impacting your overall sense of wellbeing.