Calming the Body When Fight or Flight Kicks In

When we choose to take a deep dive into creating a more meaningful life, reaching for the life we’ve dreamed, or embarking on a new direction – stuff happens. Things change. Patterns & routines get shaken up. Sometimes that feels invigorating and expansive. Sometimes, it taps into fear – current fears and stored experiences from long ago.

Photo Credit: johnhain via Pixabay

Photo Credit: johnhain via Pixabay

When fear is clean and clear, it has a simple and important purpose, to give us focus and agility to respond to whatever is going on around us. It sharpens our senses and makes us feel centered and capable.

However, most of us don’t learn how to recognize and work with fear very effectively. In addition, the negativity bias in the brain makes it hang on to fear, so we can easily tip into the reactive fight, flight or freeze mode. Depending on your past experiences, you may be more or less prone to slip into reactive mode, but it happens to all of us from time to time. 

There are times when that response is absolutely appropriate. When danger is truly present, immediate action is necessary and essential. At times like this, it’s critical that we do what we need to do to tend, first and foremost, to our safety.

But that fight, flight or freeze reaction can get triggered by anything from a near miss in traffic to cycles of worrying thoughts to preparing for an interview. What to do when you’re experiencing a reactive fear response after the danger has passed or when there is not a current, physical threat? It’s important to remember that if the physiological energy of the fight/flight response isn’t released, it’s stored in the body which will simple give us trouble later. 

I like understanding these dynamics. I get less hooked, less reactive when I am conscious of the physiology of what’s happening. And,  I like having practical things to do to help calm the very natural reaction going on in my body in these moments. Mental understanding doesn’t go far enough when my heart is racing or my body wants to collapse.

First – we need to recognize that we’re in a reactive state. Until we notice what’s happening, we don’t have the capacity to respond. This comes with practice. Paying attention with curiosity and kindness helps us expand our skill of awareness so that when fear kicks in we have more options around how we respond. 

It also helps to notice the signs of fear in your body and your typical response to fear. Is there a tingling in your arms or along the back of your neck? Does your stomach feel like it’s sinking or your vision begin to narrow? Often our early conditioning means we tend to react predominantly with one response or the other. We tend to run rather than fight back, or we tend to freeze rather than get out of the situation. It’s important not to criticize ourselves harshly when we notice these responses.  This is simply how we’ve learned to respond. With patience and attention, we can learn new skills.

The practices I find most effective fall into three different categories – calming the body, getting grounded and connected with something larger, and soaking in support. Each has a slightly different, and uniquely helpful, affect. Like me, you might find that what’s effective in one situation doesn’t work so well in another. So it’s good to be familiar with a few techniques in each category. 

Here’s a sampling of the practices I use to soothe the reactive body when fear kicks in.

Breathe. Our closest, most immediate resource is our breath. When the body is caught in the fight, flight, freeze response breathing tends to be rapid, shallow or constricted. Our breath is the one physical response we have the most control over. We can actively engage breathing patterns that send a signal to the body that all is well. A couple that work really well for me are equal breathing & belly breathing. 

Equal breathing is a pretty simple practice of breathing in to the count of four and breathing out to the count of four. Simple and effective in calming the nervous system.

To practice belly breathing start with a hand on your chest and a hand on the belly. Let your belly relax and be soft.  I like to focus first on a full, complete exhale. Then breathe in through the nose, drawing the air down toward the diaphragm. When you’re doing this right you’ll feel the belly expand, not the chest. Take several slow, deep breaths in this way and notice the tension in your body begin to melt away.

Body awareness. Sending soothing messages to the body is also helpful in calming down the fear response. Below are three that I find comforting and effective. Play around with these and see what’s most effective for you. If you find your mind slipping off to thoughts – which it will – gently bring it back to noticing the physical sensations.

1) Place one hand on your heart and one hand on the belly. Focus your attention on the connection between the palms of your hands and your body. Notice the specific sensations at the space between your hands and your body. What is the temperature and quality of the sensations? Does it move or change? How does the body respond to this gentle, kind touch?

2) From any position – sitting, lying down, walking – rest your awareness on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet. Notice all the physical sensations there – tingling, warmth, vibration. Notice what they feel like from the inside, out. Let yourself just rest in that awareness for a few minutes.

3) Close your eyes and bring your attention to the space around your eyes. Invite the muscles in your forehead, your temples, cheeks and supporting your eyes to just rest. Stay with this for several breaths until you can feel the space around your eyes soften and relax. Once it does, just be with that physical sensation of rest for a minute or two.

In the next couple posts I’ll offer some practices for grounding and feeling supported. In the meantime, practice one or more of these a few times a day. The more you become familiar with them in peaceful times, the more available they’ll be when you feel stressed. 

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  1. Winnie April 10, 2016 at 6:15 am #

    This is essential information, with context for understanding how our bodies react and tools for reshaping our responses. Thanks very much Kelly.

    • Kelly April 19, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Thanks Winnie! I hope it’s useful in practice too.

  2. Linda Gotsch April 10, 2016 at 2:14 pm #

    Very well written Kelly and very helpful. I will be using your description of equal breathing with my speech therapy patients and of course give you credit. Thank you as always.

    • Kelly April 19, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

      Thanks Linda! I’m so glad you found this helpful.

  3. Suzanne May 21, 2017 at 5:09 pm #

    Perfect message for what is going on right now – thank you so much for the reminders of how to take care of myself during the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ times!

    • Kelly May 21, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

      You’re welcome! Isn’t it helpful when we can remember that the body is just doing what it’s designed to do and there are gentle ways to restore calm?

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