If there’s one thing people tell me they want it’s to live a life that feels centered and nourished. Who doesn’t want a stress-free and happy life? But the reality of life means that always stress-free is an impossibility. That’s because, at heart, each of us has a natural response to fear. Though we are no longer living in caves and running from bears, each of us still has that inner, primal response to the stressors in our lives.
What I’ve discovered is that when you can better understand, you can take decisive action. Learning to curate a life you love isn’t just about seeding it with small pleasure. It’s also about dealing with challenges in a constructive way.
Each of us has an instinctive reaction to perceived danger. Physiologists call this the flight-fight-or-freeze response.
For example: imagine that you are picking berries and a bear approaches.
When we are in a situation that feels like a threat to our safety, security or life, the primal part of our brains (amygdala aka “lizard brain”) kicks in and triggers our hormones and body into the appropriate response. Stressors (or fears) trigger your desire to respond to this with either flight (run!), fight (bow & arrow), or freeze (stand still and hope he doesn’t notice you).
Fascinating, I know you must be thinking. Especially since that last time you pondered gathering berries it was at one of those “pick-your-own” berry farms that had all kinds of lovely amenities, like cushioned baskets and farm baked cookies. But it really is fascinating. Let me tell you why.
Any perceived threat triggers this physiological response.
Even though you don’t have to forage for food or live in a cave to avoid lions, this doesn’t mean that the same physiological response never happens. In fact, it affects you each and every day because, you see, it isn’t triggered only by bear or lions, but by any perceived harmful event, attack or thread to survival. Yes, my darling, your body instinctively reacts to all kinds of fear.
We are born into this world with only two fears: falling and loud noises. Every other fear we have is learned by experience or association. Many of these are learned during our childhood, but aren’t limited to what we would categorize as “trauma.” They extend to our deepest desires to be loved and accepted. These fears come out of the need to belong and the need of a sense of safety.
Here’s how to recognize the manifestations of your own response to fear, stress, and challenges.
Like I’ve shared often: knowledge is power. When you create awareness around how you respond to challenges. And those challenges trigger a response in your brain and body, it allows you to get get ahead of your actions and reactions. Because, when you recognize how your responses to fear manifests, it allows you to not only recognize your triggers. But act before you respond. Or, at least, manage the after affects with more grace.
If Your Go-To Response to Fear is “Flight” Here’s What You Need to Know
Have you ever wanted to run away from home? You know what I mean, don’t you? That inexplicable urge to go to Starbucks rather than deal with what’s in front of you. The inner urge to binge-watch six seasons to withdraw from the realities of life. And that inner surge or adrenaline that courses through your veins, inviting you to escape.
I am personally a master at using flight as my response to fear and stress. Though I laughingly call my five years of 200+ days a year on the road my “Gypsy Years,” the fact of the matter is that I was running away from a drama-filled daily life and seeking peace and a sense of safety. This manifested in other ways, too: the urge to go shopping or to leave the house and go to Starbucks for coffee, or go for a run or a drive.
The problem is: running away from stress and fear doesn’t solve anything. Because no matter where you go, my dear, there you are.
So how do you manage the “flight” response to fear and regain your sense of center.
- Recognize that the feelings of anxiety and signs that you’re dealing with life and stress at a primal level. And that though you may escape momentarily, you can’t escape forever.
- Lean into awareness. When things get stressful, do you have an urge to simply walk away (literally or figuratively? Where do you typically want to go? Ask yourself the “why” question until you get to your true answer.
- Create a space in your home that is solely yours. Maybe it’s a room or even a closet. When you want to run, go there first.
- Mediation helps. When our bodies are used to mediating, it’s a great go-to for calm and centering. When the desire to run hits, close your eyes and take a big deep breath. And repeat. And repeat. Because flight is a physiological response, slowing down your heart rate with deep breathing will help.
- Give yourself permission to escape, but do it with awareness. Admit to yourself: yes, I am going to Starbucks now because I really want to run away to somewhere safe (or quiet or peaceful).
- Write about it in your journal. Remind yourself that you are safe and loved. Remind yourself that you are worthy.
- Talk it over with a trusted person: your partner, your friend, your coach. Telling them about the situation when you wanted to run will allow you to release the event and gain some support.
If Your Go-To Response to Fear is “Fight” Here’s What You Need to Know
Have you ever felt so angry that you wanted to destroy everything? Though you may assume the flight response is about confrontation or fisticuffs, there’s more to it than that. It manifests, yes, in physical reactions. But it’s also present in other ways. Like the passive-aggressive way you prepare a meal you know your spouse won’t like Or in the sharp or sarcastic words you toss out in comment.
Though I personally dislike conflict, I can’t say I’m immune to having the fight response.
Know, too, that the fight response can also turn inwards. So, though I would rarely fight with another person, I’m no stranger to fighting with myself. You know what I mean: listening to the voices in your head. Believing that you’re stupid or weak. Flaying yourself with a mental whip.
How do you manage the “fight” response to fear?
- Logically, of course, if you’re in a situation where someone is harming you, don’t hesitate to defend yourself.
- Take a big deep breath before you speak. Like with flight, breathing and calming your heart rate will allow you to act with thought instead of reaction.
- If you are a fighter, during calm times, come up with a mantra to repeat to yourself. “Words said in anger still hold truth” or “Actions done in anger, even if regretted, can’t be undone.”
- Remind yourself that you are not your thoughts. You deserve to be treated with kindness and love.
- Allow yourself to feel. Yes feel angry or even enraged. Remind yourself that feeling sad is being human. Know that frustration and irritation will pass.
- Sometimes, the best way to deal with the “flight” response to fear is to turn to words. So, write a burn letter. Sit with pen and paper and get everything out of your head and then burn (safely) or shred it. As you destroy it, allow yourself to release you hurt.
- Get help. Reach out to your best friend, find therapist or hire a coach. You don’t have to deal with your fears alone.
And Here’s What You Need to Know If Your Go-To Response to Fear is “Freeze”
Have you ever tried to make everything in your life look perfect? Does stress send you to cleaning house? Or obsessively examining your body for flaws? These are all signs of the “freeze” response to fear. Yes, my dear, though you are not a little bunny rabbit hoping the hawk doesn’t see you, your go to response to fear may be to freeze.
Oh, this is another one I’ve quite familiar with. It manifests itself in the ways we try to blend in (dress like everyone else, etc). It’s seen in the way we retreat internally or into a fantasy world. My childhood response was to sit in a corner of the living room and read a book. My adult response was to dress in lots of black and withdraw into myself as I pretended that I was invisible.
Any way you try to blend into the background or make the energetic space you take up as tiny as possible is like freezing in hopes the bear won’t see us.
So, what can you do about the freeze response?
- If you are near a goose nest and have been noticed, freeze and then carefully walk backwards away from the goose, never losing sight of him. (Why, yes, I have experienced this and know that geese will hiss, bite and attack.)
- Breathe, baby, breathe!
- Practice being seen. Practice being heard. This may be a game you can play with your best friend or an activity you can do with your coach or therapist. In fact, it’s one of the reasons coaching is valuable because it allows us to be heard.
- Buy a power outfit. One that says I’m confident. I deserve to be seen. I am valued.
- Write yourself a permission slip to be seen, heard, and visible. Write in your journal. Re-write inspirational quotes.
When it comes to fear, darling, the first thing to do is to be aware. From personal experience and from working with dozens of clients around fear, I’ve learned that identifying and naming the fear begins to remove the power it has over you.
Then, remember that the instinct to fight, flee, or freeze is literally hard-wired into your brain. Acting on that instinct doesn’t make you a failure, but learning to channel it into a productive response can help make you better able to resist in the future.
I am so very grateful that my days of constantly being in the flight-fight-or-freeze way of living are behind me. I was able to break many of my go-to responses by creating a daily life that feels nurturing, supportive, and loving. Now, when something triggers me, I’m able to recognize what’s happening, breathe and remind myself that I’m safe and I am loved.
And when I catch myself in the middle of a response, I’m more able to laugh about it and admire my clean counter-tops.
Working with a coach has been critical in helping me recognize and manage my response to fear.
Coaching can be an amazing way to get the support you need. Coaching allows you to talk about your dreams. And then have someone help you create a plan to usher them into reality. You can find details about packages and pricing here.