Throughout the lockdown counsellor Laura Sollis has been reflecting on the effects on people's mental wellbeing, especially those with social anxiety. Here she explains the flight or fight response that can help us deal with threatening situations, but can also become a curse.
I realise from my own experience of social anxiety, how exhausting it feels, the embarrassment, constant fidgeting and the ongoing war that happens in our heads. At times the fear of having an anxiety attack was just as bad as the attack itself.
For me it felt like a constant cycle of avoidance, excuses and planning ahead.
But when I look back to when it first happened, I didn't have a clue what had just hit me, it took a long time for me to even understand this was an actual thing.
I would frequently berate myself for not being ‘normal’, how could I be? After all, I hadn't seen or heard of anyone else experiencing what I had.
Turns out, I was way off the mark, my reaction was the most natural thing to happen to us humans when faced with fear.
What’s flight/fight for?
The flight/fight response has been there since we were living in caves and back then it was (and it can be now) literally a lifesaver.
I tend to think of it as our alarm system, if we sense danger then it will put our bodies into turbo mode. But what each of us fear is as unique as we are. Unlike our cave-dwelling ancestors, we don't have to worry about being a big cat’s lunch! But modern life can be full of stress and worry about kids, money, family pressures and so much more. What happens?
When we sense a possible threat, various distress signals will be sent around to different parts of our brain, hormones are then released, alerting our body to prepare.
We may experience any of the following sensations:........
- Racing thoughts - the mind starts to race through a multitude of thoughts and possibilities and we may find it very difficult to concentrate on anything else but the threat.
- The heart beating faster to supply more blood to those important limbs that will help protect us by running or fighting.
- Faster and shallower breathing to provide more oxygen to our arms and legs.
- Increased adrenalin - this can almost feel like a turbo charge, it can make us more alert, make us faster and is responsible for the changes to our body during this time.
- ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach - the all too familiar sensation is actually our body being very clever and prioritising what we will need the most, so blood flow will move away from the digestive system.
All this will help give us the strength and ability to either bop the threat on the nose, or run like the wind!
Now all this is fantastic if we were fighting or running from say, a tiger. But when the adrenalin isn't used, we may also find that our hands and bodies become cold and clammy, we may shake uncontrollably and our eyes may become blurry and hard to focus. Friend or foe?
Over the years I've heard some amazing stories of how the flight/fight response has saved people's lives.
But alongside social anxiety, flight/fight can feel like a curse, it can feel like the enemy that sneaks up on us to ruin our day and likes to dictate how we live our lives.
The fact is we humans don’t come with a set of instructions, but we can introduce new techniques to ease anxiety and learn new ways to reduce stress and, and you never know, perhaps that next shot of adrenalin will be used to punch anxiety in the nose!