You my be here because you have felt anxious and panicky recently. Or it may be your child you are trying to help. My fight or flight pdf is downloadable below.
It will help you (or your child) understand the symptoms or anxiety and what you can do about them.
By demystifying the fight or flight response, I want to help you feel less scared by it and more in control.
What is the Fight or Flight Response?
The fight or flight response is a natural physiological reaction to a perceived threat, whether real or imagined.
It prepares the body to either fight or flee, to stay alive.
For example, the heart rate increases. The heart quickly pumps more blood to the muscles, preparing them to respond to the immediate threat.
Let’s say you’re walking in the woods and you suddenly hear a loud growling noise. Your body is likely to go into fight or flight mode.
Within milliseconds it prepares you to either fight the animal making the noise or run away as fast as you can.
The response is mediated by chemical messengers called stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones trigger a cascade of physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, faster breathing, and heightened alertness.
Whilst fight or flight can be beneficial in helping us cope with acute stress, if we have chronic stress, fight or flight can be triggered too often.
In essence, our brains overestimate the danger regularly. Chronic stress can lead to negative health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and physical health problems.
The Stress Response
Whilst fight or flight is the best known stress response, there are other types of stress responses. Here are some examples:
- Freeze response: In some situations, our body may respond to stress by freezing or becoming still, rather than fighting or fleeing. This can be especially common if you have experienced trauma.
- Tend and befriend response: This is a stress response that is more common among women than men. It involves seeking social support and connection during times of stress, rather than fighting or fleeing.
- Withdrawal response: This can involve withdrawing from social situations, avoiding stressors, or becoming emotionally detached in response to stress.
- Mobilization response: This type of stress response can involve getting to work on a task or problem in order to deal with a stressor. It may involve increased focus and productivity, rather than physical activity.
- Exhaustion response: If stressors persist for a long time or if someone experiences chronic stress, they may eventually experience an exhaustion response. It can involve fatigue, burnout, and a sense of being overwhelmed.
Understanding the Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is a complex network of nerves and ganglia that control involuntary processes in your body such as heart rate, digestion, and breathing. It is divided into two main branches, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body’s fight or flight response. It increases heart rate, dilates the pupils, and diverts blood flow to the muscles to help the body respond quickly to a threat.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your body’s “rest and digest” response, which helps the body to recover and conserve energy. It slows down heart rate, constricts the pupils, and stimulates digestion.
Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work together to maintain a delicate balance in your body. They ensure your organs and tissues receive the proper amount of stimulation to function optimally.
How to Use the Fight or Flight PDF Worksheet
First, take some time to familiarize yourself with the image of the body and the different symptoms marked on it. Next, think about a situation that tends to trigger your panic or anxiety, and try to identify which symptoms you normally experience. Once you have identified your symptoms, mark them on the symptoms page of your worksheet.
As you continue to use the worksheet, you can also make note of any triggers that tend to elicit a strong response from you. Think about coping strategies or techniques that have been helpful in managing your symptoms.
The final page contains a reminder of the 9 tips I have listed below, to manic your fight or flight symptoms.
Download Your Free Fight or Flight PDF Worksheets
You can download your free printable fight or flight worksheets directly below.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
How to Use Your New Knowledge
Did you know that you have control over your nervous system? You can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system by slowing and deepening your breathing, or relaxing your muscles.
9 Tips For Managing Your Panic Symptoms
- Remember that fight or flight is a normal response. It’s just your body trying to keep you safe.
- Remember that you can learn to control the fight or flight response, for example by slowing your breathing. It takes time and practise.
- Know that the sensations will pass.
- If possible seek out a quiet and comfortable space to take a break and recharge.
- If you can, connect with a pet or animal, close family member or trusted friend to help you contain the response. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Remember, this is a common and normal reaction.
- Very slow, deep breaths are your most powerful weapon against the fight or flight response. They tell your body that the danger has passed and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response).
- Engage your senses: Focus on something pleasant to look at, listen to, smell, taste, or touch to help shift your focus away from the fight or flight trigger.
- Distraction can be a helpful “in the moment” tool to get you through a fearful situation. For example, if you are scared of lifts (elevators) but need to get into one, sing your favourite song in your head (that’s my favourite technique!) or count backwards in 3s from 100. This will prevent your thoughts spiralling.
- Create a safety plan for yourself that includes coping strategies, support people/animals, and emergency contact information.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Thinking and Fight or Flight
As we have already seen, it’s not just real danger that can trigger fight or flight. Even when there is no danger at all, our thoughts can create imagined scenarios, “what if’s”, that feel just as real as actual dangers. These can snowball and before we know it we are in full-on panic mode.
Here are some examples:
- Public speaking: The thought of giving a speech in front of a large audience can trigger a fight or flight response. You might think, “What if I mess up? What if everyone thinks I’m a terrible speaker? What if I forget what I’m supposed to say? What if I totally humiliate myself?” Sound familiar? Although it’s not a life-threatening situation, the body may respond as though it is.
- Taking a test: Again, this is not a life-threatening situation, but the body can easily be triggered into a survival response (fight or flight). Thoughts that can spiral and trigger fight or flight include: “What if I don’t know the answers? What if I go completely blank? What if I fail? What if everyone else does better than me?”
- Confrontation: Conflict and confrontation can be scary, but it’s not usually life threatening. We often have thoughts such as: “What if they get angry with me? What if they don’t want to talk to me anymore? What if I’m wrong and they get upset? What if they are verbally aggressive in response?”
Why do thoughts sometimes trigger fight or flight when there’s no danger to life?
In essence, our brains are still pretty primitive. They evolved when there were many life threatening dangers around such as predators. They didn’t evolve for modern-world scenarios like exams and tests.
Think of the fight or flight response as extremely simplistic, like a smoke alarm. It’s either fully triggered or not triggered at all. There’s no middle ground. A smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between burnt toast and a life-threatening fire. It triggers regardless.
Therefore, when you start to notice the symptoms of fight or flight coming on, it can be extremely helpful to practise saying (in your head), “It’s okay, it’s just my body over-reacting” or “It’s okay, it’s just my fight or flight response trying to protect me”.
The brain’s prefrontal cortex has evolved to give us incredible planning and organising skills. But these skills also cause us to worry about the future and ruminate over things that have happened in the past. These thoughts can be interpreted by the brain as potential threats and can easily trigger the stress response (fight, flight or freeze).
Fight or Flight PDF: Summary
Use your fight or flight pdf worksheets to help you (or your child) understand your symptoms and triggers better. Practise using some of the tips I have given you to prevent fight or flight, or quickly bring it under control if it has already triggered.
It’s also important to learn to recognise thoughts that are triggering fight or flight.
Over time you can learn to calm these thoughts or to gently adapt them to help you keep calm.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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