Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Fight? Flight? These are the two ways in which humans react to stressful situations. You’ve probably heard those terms before. I sure have, from my clients when they are describing their own reactions to stress. Here are a couple of examples:
The urge to fight
A client I’ll call Dave described a recent experience at work. “I was having a bad day from the beginning. I wasn’t feeling well and my energy was especially low. I felt bad enough to stay at home, but didn’t want to use more sick time. So wouldn’t you know that it was one of those days when I had to put out one fire after another. The pressure was so intense. Finally, a coworker let me know another job was coming down the pike. When she said that, I suddenly felt like I was backed into a corner and in danger of failing. The stress I was feeling was that bad. I kind of blew up at everybody. I knew at the time that getting angry wasn’t going to solve anything, and might even do some damage. But I couldn’t stop myself. I had to mend some fences the next day.”
The need for flight
Another client, who I’ll call Marla, described her own experience with stress at home. “I was having a rough day. I’m still adjusting to the medication I’m on, and it hasn’t been easy. My two kids didn’t have to go to school because of a snowstorm, so they were trapped inside the house with me and, oh boy, were they revved up. Then the washing machine broke and water went everywhere. By the time my husband got home from work, I felt so stressed I was about to jump out of my skin. He asked me how my day went, and all I could say was, ‘You take over. I’m going to hide for a while.’ And that’s what I did. I went down to our basement family room and watched TV all evening while he took care of the kids. I was at the end of my ability to cope. I had to escape. Who knows, maybe if I was feeling better I could have handled the situation better. But I felt like I had run away and abandoned my family, which isn’t a very good feeling.”
You have the power to choose
What I just described are examples of the fight-or-flight response. Dave’s stress activated his fight response. Marla’s stress activated her flight response.
What about you? How do you respond to stress? Fight? Flight? And here’s another question to consider: How does your chronic condition affect the way you respond to stress? If the symptoms of your chronic condition and its treatment seem to lower your ability to tolerate stressful situations, you are sure not alone. But keep in mind that if you constantly feel stressed, then your fight-or-flight response may also be constantly engaged. That can have a negative impact on your health.
The next time you’re feeling stressed and your fight-or-flight response is about to kick in, here are some ideas to help you cope:
Start with taking a deep breath. Yes, I know, I give that advice a lot. But a deep breath helps to clear your mind when you’re overcome by all the emotions of the moment. And helps to relax all that tension in your body.
Engage your rational mind. Start by asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” You’ll be swallowed up and disappear forever? Or might it be something less fearsome—like having to acknowledge that you’re only human and not perfect? Most likely your answer will give you a reason to dial down your perception of immediate danger from a ten to at least a five. And reduce your stress symptoms along with it. So instead of blowing up or running for the hills, you might be able to tolerate the situation better.
Reframe. Sure, on one hand, the situation seems pretty terrible. But on the other hand, is it also an opportunity to grow? Or to set an example for someone who may look to you for guidance, like coworkers or your kids? You might be amazed how a shift in perspective can help to keep you in the room, and in control of your emotions, when the stress button has been pushed. Again, your rational mind is needed here.
Review your foundation. What are your strengths? The coping skills that have helped you power through difficult situations in the past? And what about your support system and the safety of the home you have helped to create? This is your foundation. Reviewing it can help to remind you that the world is not crashing around you.
Get support. Vent. Keeping all that frustration bottled up just feeds the fight-or-flight response. So talk to someone who can listen without judgment. Release your feelings into the light of day. They will have a lot less power over you if you let them out.
Be proactive. Start by taking a break. I know you can’t always take a break in the middle of a crazy day. Our friend Marla certainly couldn’t. But if you are taking breaks on a regular basis, having moments of time for yourself, to relax, you may find that you are that much more able to cope when you are faced with a stressful situation.
Be grateful. One of the signs that you are overwhelmed by stress is feeling like everything, and I mean everything, is working against you. That’s a toxic frame of mind to fall into. And one that is likely to make you want to put up your fists to do battle, or to do a fifty-yard dash into the next county. Gratitude is another good proactive stress management tool. You can start out the day shifting your perspective in a positive direction by identifying something you feel grateful for. This can help you keep your perspective in the face of stress.
Remember your fight-or-flight response isn’t always harmful. Nature gave us the fight-or-flight response for a reason. It sure helped the cave dwellers when they encountered an angry Tyrannosaurus! If you find yourself standing in the middle of the street with four lanes of traffic coming at you, definitely indulge that flight response. If you or a loved one has a medical emergency, the fight response can help you to mobilize and take action. What’s important here is to know when your fight-or-flight response is hurting you more than it’s helping you.
You, your stress, and the fight-or-flight response. Be aware of your emotions. Engage your rational mind to cope more effectively in the moment. Be proactive. Manage your emotions so they don’t manage you.
What helps when stress makes you want to fight or flee? Help our community by adding a comment below to share your advice.