Updated: Oct 14, 2021
When we are faced with a threat to our survival the fight or flight response is activated. This includes an acknowledgement by certain parts of our brain that external stimuli indicate a danger, like a lion, and we need to fight it or run from it. Then the body kicks in, releasing adrenaline to increase abilities and awareness and also causing the shakiness feeling, the heart speeds up because it is desperately re-routing blood to muscles for explosive energy to fight or flight, and our breathing becomes rapid and shallow as the body is told to pull in oxygen as fast as possible to fuel these demands on our body. But what about when there is no "lion", how are these helpful? Well, they are not, and the brain and body are responding to a perceived threat not a real threat. Perceived threat is often worry about the future or a social threat, like a bill or losing our job.
So when we experience the fight or flight response in social threat situations or worry about hypothetical, future events we need to take a four step approach to inform the mind and body that it is incorrect. This also helps to re-train this behavior and become more aware of the signals in our body, while allowing the logic centers of the brain to come back online and challenge this emotionally based response. Here are the four key steps: 1) NOTICE: It is imperative to notice that the mind and body are dysregulated and activating the fight or flight response in order to increase awareness of these signals. The more attuned we become to our body's signals and the thoughts occurring along with them, the better our mind-body connection and the better our ability to identify more subtle signs before we hit that tipping-point. If we notice our shoulders are tensing and can address this in the moment then this tension does not continue to build until we experience pain or have other negative issues because we failed to notice the signs our body was giving us. Plus, you must identify there is an issue before having the opportunity to address it.
2) CHALLENGE: Don't just accept that your body is tense or that you are having racing or negative thoughts. Challenge these thoughts with evidence in the present moment, notice there is no lion, there is not actual immediate danger to your life. You may have a valid concern of fearing the safety of a loved one who is missing or living in a dangerous country, but there is no threat to your life in this moment and the flight or fight response is not helpful. On the contrary, it inhibits your ability to handle the situation because you are being driven by the instinctual, emotional parts of the brain and the logic centers in the frontal lobe are unavailable. Anything you practice you become better at, so if you just allow yourself to be anxious then you are solidifying the automatic connection between worry of a loved one and responding with the fight or flight response. In other words, you further support the connection in your mind and body that this is the appropriate response when facing social threats.
3) REGULATE BODY: You need to purposely regulate the body by challenging this shift in the nervous system. When anxious, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and triggers the many physical reactions you experience when threatened. By purposely challenging these physical responses it challenges the cause and effect reaction and encourages activation of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which includes the vagus nerve responsible for regulating heartbeat and calming after the body has been activated. This can be done by using a breathing technique such as 4x4 breathing and a body relaxation technique such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) or "Noodle" technique. By doing this you tell the body it is safe and it is misinformed, and this activates the nervous system to begin to dampen and stop the fight or flight response.
4) REGULATE MIND: Finally you must regulate the mind, as the mind and body are connected and inform one another. The best way to do this is to use grounding techniques to get out of your head and into the present moment, which is safe. When you experience anxiety in the present moment and there is no thereat to life, and especially if no threat to social abilities, the anxiety is due to being "in your head" where you can think about all the unknowns and every terrible hypothetical scenario of the future. Our brains are wired to notice and consider the negative as a survival instinct. We need to notice the dog off the leash running at us when we step outside, not the $100 bill on the ground; the dog is a threat and the money is not. To do this you need to ground in the present using your senses, using the 54321 Method or even have a Grounding Box at home.
By engaging in these four steps you challenge the often automatic emotional response to a given situation, identify the signs that inform you anxiety may be building, regulate your body to calm, and stop the racing and intrusive thoughts from being stuck in your head. If you implement this often and on a regular basis then you will require less and less effort as your brain develops new neural pathways. Just as you put your seatbelt on when you get in a car without any thought or planning you can practice and get to a point where your mind and body go into a regulation activity in socially stressful situations with little thought or effort.