A Matter of Security
Security and emergency service personnel, Police and military members regularly encounter stressful or dangerous situations in their working lives. Fortunately, our bodies have a natural stress response mechanism to threatening situations. This is known as the ‘fight or flight response’. Understanding our body’s natural response to threat and danger can help us recognize the signs of this response, but also better understand the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
What is The Flight or Fight Response?
The flight or fight response refers to a biochemical reaction that both humans and animals experience during extreme stressful or terrifying situations. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to body.
The body responds to perceived threat or danger mentally and or physically. Certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released. It Increases the heart rate, your breathing rate, slows digestion, pushing blood to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions. This prepares our bodies for the onslaught, giving the body its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger.
However, the same response may be inappropriate in a situation when in traffic or during a stressful day at work. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.
When the perceived threat is gone, the body returns to normal function through a relaxation response. It can take between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.
With chronic stress being an integral part of our work, the ability to relax doesn’t happen enough. This can impact our health.
Anxiety and Fear – Why are they helpful?
If we are going to talk about the flight or fight syndrome, it is important to discuss the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is what you experience while you are encountering a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a stressful, or threatening situation. Simply thinking about something stressful or dangerous that could happen to you can cause you to be anxious too.
Anxiety and fear are very helpful responses. They are hard-wired responses to extreme danger and threat. Without them the human race may not have survived. Why? Flight or fight refers to the two choices our ancestors had when facing a dangerous animal or enemy. Anxiety and fear tell us when danger is present. Here are some signs that your body is going through a number of physiological changes:
- Your heart rate may increase – pushing blood to the bigger muscle groups
- Your vision may narrow – increased focus, sometimes called ‘tunnel vision’
- You may notice that your muscles become tense – in preparation to spring into action
- You may begin to sweat – to help cool the body
- Your hearing may become more sensitive – heightened senses and awareness
- Cool, pale skin – Pulling blood away from the skin also helps decrease bleeding from cuts and scrapes.
- Dilated pupils – To let more light in and improve sight, the pupils dilate.
- Dry mouth – The body can interrupt digestion of food until after the threat has been eliminated. This same reaction can also cause an upset stomach.
These changes prepare you for immediate action. They are preparing you to flee, or freeze (like a possum when caught in the headlights of an oncoming car), or to fight. It is a response designed to keep us alive, and important to our survival. It is a response that comes quickly and automatically.
The flight or fight response is a direct result of adrenaline being released into the bloodstream. Anything that causes stress to the body will trigger a fight or flight response – for example, an angry patron, deadlines, a fight, an assailant approaching, a work accident, etc.
A Downside to This Response
It would be great if anxiety and fear only occurred in situations where we were in immediate danger. This is not always the way. For example, many people have fear and anxiety when speaking publicly. You may also have fear and anxiety when meeting someone new.
We have fear and anxiety in these situations because of the way we evaluate these situations. Our body cannot always tell the difference between real and imagined threat. Therefore, when we interpret a situation as threatening, our body is going to respond as though that situation is dangerous and threatening, even if it really isn’t at all.
Managing the Flight or Fight Response
For some people, the flight or fight responses can be triggered by events that would usually be ignored by others. This hypersensitivity can be caused by factors, including:
- Being born with imbalance in brain hormones, such as anxiety and bipolar disorders
- There is a history of verbal or physical abuse from childhood
- Other post-traumatic stress disorders
Spending so much time in this state of high alert is exhausting and damaging. We have spoken about the changes the body goes through but prolonged exposure also has physical consequences. Those include feeling stressed all the time, including high blood pressure, tension or migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, not to mention Post Traumatic Stres Disorder (PTSD).
How do we remove all that negative energy when we know there is no real danger? Especially since, the flight or fight reaction is an involuntary physical response. Sending a mental message to our adrenal glands to tell them to stop producing adrenalin and noradrenalin may not be possible but adopting a simple breathing technique is one way to remain calm.
Simply breathing is an easy technique for calming yourself from this heightened state of alert. Just from taking a moment to pause and notice what’s going on in our bodies, is effective form of relief.
- Find a quiet place.
- Sit up straight in a chair, both feet on the floor, arms rested on your knees or just lie on the floor.
- Begin to inhale by expanding your abdomen, move your breath into your lungs then, all the way into your chest.
- As you exhale, begin exhaling down through your lungs and into your abdomen. Contract your abdominal muscles as you exhale your final breath of air.
- Practice this for one minute and then progressively lengthen the practice to five minutes.
This breathing technique promotes full exhalation and inhalation.
There’s no need to push yourself or judge yourself for getting stressed. Just take the time out and focus on your breathing.
The Flight or Fight Response and PTSD
People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have experienced something traumatic, and feel as though the world is not a safe place. They feel as though danger is everywhere. This can cause a person to be in a constant state of fear and anxiety. There are now developed cognitive behavioral treatments for PTSD where the focus is on offering alternative ways in which people see their environment. Awareness and recognition of triggering behaviors and environments may also help to minimize their hypertensive onslaught of the fight or flight response.
Reactions to traumatic experiences come in a variety of ways. Some might experience symptoms of trauma which disappear after a number of weeks. However, if symptoms of trauma continue for longer than a month then its possible PTSD is present.
Trauma symptoms vary from person to person, but some examples are:
- On constant alert
- Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Feeling suicidal
- Irrational and intense fear
- Limited tolerance to noise
- Difficulty concentrating
- Being easily moved to tears
- Panic attacks/anxiety/depression/mood swings
- Feeling agitated and easily startled
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Anger or aggressive behavior
Can You Recover from PTSD?
Yes, you can, and that’s the good news. With the right treatment and support, PTSD is entirely treatable, and you will eventually start to feel better.
There are many available treatments such as EMDR and CBT. There are also many medical and natural options, including kundalini yoga, equine therapy, ketogenic diet, running, and ocean and surf therapy. You might want to give some of these a go while you wait for the next stages of your treatment to begin.
You can also find out more about ways of reducing your symptoms and dealing with your diagnosis. There’s also a lot of other information available to educate you about post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowledge is power and it can help you to feel more in control.
It might feel like a long road ahead, and there will potentially be pot-holes for you in that journey, but the good news is that you are on the right path for where you want to be; and we’re here, with you, for the long haul.
Sometimes you may be putting obstacles in the way of your recovery. Understanding those barriers you are putting in place is the first step to eliminating them.
- Your Feelings Matter: Your feelings are valid. Don’t listen to comments from those who are ignorant of PTSD. Don’t sabotage yourself saying ‘it won’t work’- You have to believe it will.
- Take your time: You cannot don’t rush the recovery process. Give your brain, emotions and mind time to work together.
- Stay the Course: You may approach a part of recovery which feels like its taken you further away from the trauma you need to address. Acknowledge this feeling and keep moving towards the end goal of full recovery.
- Give up control: Control is a way of ‘staying safe’ but for effective recovery you need a free and open environment to work in. You have to trust that things can, and will, get better.
- Being overwhelmed: Treatment will seem a daunting task especially when you are feeling at your lowest point. Knowing what is involved in treatment can be comforting and motivating.
- An emotional and physical cost: Recovery can seem like a costly and exhaustive process when you consider your feelings, relationships, money and time. Knowing that it is possible to be yourself again will make it all worthwhile.
- Trust yourself: You may not feel confident enough to take the right path of recovery, to choose the right treatment or to do what’s necessary to rid you of PTSD. Just follow the advice of the professionals, and trust yourself when it comes to your well-being.
- Recovery isn’t balanced: Don’t just focus on recovery, give yourself space to breathe. it can be detrimental to treatment. On the other hand if you don’t focus enough on recovery, it may stop progress. There has to be a balance.
- Be Committed: You need to be mentally invested in your treatment and recovery. Otherwise you can forget the reason you started this journey and can negatively affect the recovery process. Again its about trusting that the treatment can be successful. Get the most you can from your therapist.
- Trust Yourself: When you choose to take the right path of recovery, and treatment that is necessary to rid you of PTSD. Just follow the advice of the professionals, and trust yourself when it comes to your well-being.
It is good to recognize and acknowledge how you’re feeling. Sometimes you just need to stop moving forward and deal with the obstacle in your way. Only then can you get your recovery back on track.
The flight or fight response is an involuntary response which prepares us when we are confronted with extreme threat and or danger. We have learned that anxiety and stress are natural responses and that without them there would be no human existence.
its obvious that although this warning system is important, it can also be detrimental to our mental and physical health, therefore an understanding of the symptoms and early warning signs can help minimise the harmful effects of prolonged stress and anxiety. More importantly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is entirely treatable and with the right treatment and support, can progressively help you feel better.
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We live in an unpredictable world where leaving the house means you might be confronted with potentially extreme and dangerous situations including violent acts like shootings, muggings, terrorist attacks, home invasions, and other violent and critical situations.
“Fight or Flight” will teach you how to identify and manage such events in the street, in the workplace, or at home. It will show you how you can prepare for, avoid, and survive a violent encounter where ever you are.
Survival means understanding situational awareness, and being physically and mentally able to defend yourself. You have to be able to react to a dangerous situation before it’s too late. “Fight or Flight” Teaches you to be proactive. It teaches you how developing situational awareness will give you an advantage despite your physical ability and skill level.