For the past few months, it’s been tough for me to focus or maintain perspective.
I end conversations with people before they even begin. A friend puts me down in a joking way, and I get ultra-sensitive and strike back. I snap easily. I’m irritable most of the time.
I’m not my “new self” anymore; I’m reacting rather than responding.
Recently, I yelled at a waiter for hovering close to my broken leg. After this outburst, I studied my journal and realised that in the past two months (since my double leg break), I’ve started to lose my way. I have endured my plight as best as I can, and I’ve certainly done much better than I would have a few years ago.
But it’s been challenging. I’ve slept badly because of the pain. I’ve felt worthless, needing help all the time. Worst of all, in losing the rigidity and consistency of my morning rituals and daily exercise, I’ve lost the bridge to my soul and the energy that it provides me.
I have failed miserably to follow Gandhi’s advice. When asked how he found time to meditate when busy, he said, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”
However, I’m human. In battling the pain, discomfort, and fears afflicting me, I inadvertently fell into fight-or-flight mode.
What is Fight-or-Flight Response?
This physiological (not psychological) response occurs in the body when we sense danger. The hypothalamus portion of the brain, when stimulated, initiates a sequence of nerve cell firings that raises the alarm by releasing chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into our bloodstream.
This prepares our body to either fight or run. In addition, it causes our pupils to dilate, our heart to beat faster, increases blood pressure and circulation, and our breath to become rapid, giving us more oxygen. We feel hot and sweat more profusely. Our digestive system shuts down.
All these bodily changes work in our favour to help give us extra energy and strength to fight—or run.
This was fantastic when facing a saber-toothed tiger many thousands of years ago. And it’s helpful in crisis situations like putting out a fire or coping in a war zone.
But how many times do we find ourselves in these dangerous situations today? Our most significant threats are not physical, but rather mental and emotional. A looming work deadline, a public speaking gig, an argument with a loved one, banks sending warning letters.
The physiological changes in our bodies when we enter fight-or-flight mode are meant to last for a short period—just until we decide whether to run or face the danger. However, as our perceived threats extend indefinitely in time, we remain in a state of persistent arousal with limited opportunities to release the built-up tension. When we repeatedly react in this way over years or decades, cortisol takes over, and stress becomes our dominant state. This can then lead to many diseases and illnesses.
In this cortisol-induced state, our senses are heightened. We take every comment, question, and look as if it were an attack on our being. Rather than reflective, we become reactive.
We inherited this survival mechanism from our ancestors to help us evolve; however, it rarely helps us survive anymore.
It is this survival mechanism that has helped me recover from injury and protect my healing bone, but it has also turned me into a nervous wreck. One who screams at the nurse for leaning her hand on my damaged bone while removing the stitches, at the waiter on my first day out to a restaurant, or at a child running up and down the aeroplane corridor as I lie with my leg near his running space.
So how can we get out of this survival state? What is the opposite of fight-or-flight mode?
The relaxation response.
The relaxation response was discovered by the inspirational author and Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, M.D. It represents a hard-wired antidote to fight-or-flight response. It’s important to understand that we can’t co-exist in both states at the same time. We are either in a heightened state of survival—or relaxed.
In this relaxed mode, our breathing is normal, our blood pressure is regulated, and our muscles are soft. We are free from the emotional and physiological effect that clouds our judgement and thinking. We are more objective, seeing things for what they are. A letter from the bank is not a death warrant, but a reminder to get our accounts in order.
An argument with our loved one doesn’t mean it’s over, just that we need to have a good discussion. Likewise, no one is going to hit my car, and the waiter won’t step on my injured leg. (Although, I don’t know about the kid using my leg as a hurdle).
These are three ways I got out of fight-or-flight mode and back into relaxation response. I hope they may help you make the shift too.
As I reflected on my behaviour through journaling and conversations with loved ones, I became objective enough to remove the feelings of self-pity clouding my thinking. I saw that I had become difficult, not much fun, and somewhat irritating. I compared myself before and after my accident and saw a big difference. This awareness was the first step to addressing the problem.
I then quickly returned to my practice of meditating and reading first thing in the morning. Quieting my mind for 15 minutes and then reading mindfully for another 30 to 45 somehow takes me out of overthinking and into a great place of connection to my higher self.
A few weeks after my trauma, I tried reading an author I truly love, David Mitchell, and I just couldn’t read. Last week, I picked up Slade House once again—and finished it in two sittings.
The more I write and express myself, the more layers of ego I shed. Somehow the fears, worries, and insecurities quickly begin to dissipate. When I put words on paper or laptop, it’s a cathartic act. It frees me from the shackles of survival mode.
Again, it took me a while before I could freely write again after my accident. I trace my re-awakening back to when I forced myself to write every day, even if it was only for 15 minutes.
For me, the key is writing. Others might substitute dancing, singing, painting, cooking, creating a new marketing plan, or whatever creative process supports them to enter into a relaxed state.
We’re not perfect. No matter how much we develop ourselves, we will always face challenges, crises, and defeats. Sometimes, we’ll slip unconsciously into fight-or-flight mode. However, it’s how we respond to these slips and get back into relaxation response that can distinguish our lives.
Whenever we see ourselves going the wrong way, away from the person we want to be or the person we want to be around, then it’s time for reflection. It’s time to notice that we have slipped into this state, and it’s time for awareness, mindfulness, and creative action.
Have you fallen into this survival mode before? Could you be in it right now?
Don’t forget that the relaxation response is the antidote.
Bonus: 5 Mindful Things to do Each Morning.
Author: Mo Issa
Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton