Updated: Mar 26, 2021
What would you do if you where walking down the street and as you turn a corner you see a bear. The bear notices you as well and begins to run towards you...
While our thoughts may range from "RUN!!!" to "does playing dead really work against bears?" the reaction our bodies have will be the same. As the brain detects danger, it sends an S.O.S. signal to other parts of the body that make changes to better prepare for a fear response, otherwise known as the fight, flight, or freeze response. As the heart begins to beat at a faster rate, the muscles become tense, sweating begins, mouth gets dry, and the feeling nausea prevents hunger. In this moment we become solely focused on the bear and other thoughts feel meaningless.
The fight,flight, or freeze response is a powerful natural response that can mobilize the body's resources so that we can quickly escape the bear or other threat in the environment. This response was developed for quick bursts of energy and shuts down any functions that do not immediately help in survival. It would be used to either fight or escape, either of which would not allow it to be activated for long periods of time. The problem is when our lives are so full of stress and we are not able to turn it off.
In most of our lives, we do not encounter bears often. Unfortunately, our immune system and fear response has a hard time differentiating between an external stress like a physical bear charging at you and intense internal stresses. What are some things in your life that produce the symptoms written earlier in green?
Many people come to counselling because they feel that they are not as able to handle stresses of life as they use to, or a particular situation has been causing them an unreasonable amount of distress and they are not able to articulate why. For some it can present in being unable to boundary set and communicate with bosses or loved ones, or for others they are having a hard time focusing on what they want and feel constantly disinterested which leads to procrastinating even the most important tasks.
The fear response is conditioned, the more often something negative happens, no matter how small, the more distressing it will be the next time it happens if you do not face it effectively. Below are a few examples:
Your heart starts to beat faster and you feel nauseous when a loved one is saying something you do not agree with and you stay silent which subconsciously chooses either flight or freeze in your fear response. Additional fear becomes paired to conversations with that person which make you less likely to respond. This leads to more silence or potentially a fight response resulting in an aggressive outburst or physical act which causes guilt and additional stress.
Your boss is not easily impressed at work, your ability goes unnoticed and when they are around you notice that you are on pins and needles. You can only think of how he may critique you. You focus on how he could potentially pick apart your work to the point that you become indecisive, you work suffers and you begin to get more and more bad reviews to the point that you quit as it is unbearable. You feel like a failure.
Because the fear response is conditioned, and a survival instinct, it cannot just be thought away. Implementing tools such as box breathing, 4 7 8 breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation help to override the response and put us back into a place of calm. Re-centering to a place of calm is not enough, breathing to regulate and then distracting ourselves with social media or TV does not help improve communication skills or work ethic. These tools allows you to respond to stressful situations with an appropriate response in a way that you choose.
An appropriate response can be created to stressful situations when you are not in them. By reflecting on stressful situations you can identify what the warnings signs are of particular thoughts and create ways of communicating and reducing the stress. It can be helpful to ask yourself 'Socratic Questions' such as:
Am I basing this thought off of feelings or fact?
Could I be misinterpreting the evidence, when reality is more complicated?
Am I making an assumptions?
Am I having this thought out of habit, or do the facts support it?
Did someone pass this thought/ belief to me? If so, are they a reliable source?
Is this a likely scenario or worst case scenario?
Pairing coping tools with appropriate responses will equip you in facing stress and habits that once felt like a charging grizzly bear. If you have been trying on your own and finding continued challenge, I encourage you to book a session or schedule a free consultation call.