Flight, Fight or Breathe

Our bodies lie to us.

They send out hormones announcing an imminent threat to our well being when we take the podium or when we get into an argument with a loved one. Our heart rate increases at the thought of taking a test and our immune system is compromised because of a noisy environment. We assume we are in danger because our body tells us so.

Our bodies lie to us.

They interpret so much stimuli (internal and external) as a threat and they respond with a cascade of physiological changes and adaptations that are referred to as the flight or fight response. It begins in the amygdala, a rather primal region of the brain that responds to perceived dangers. The hypothalamus taps the adrenal gland on the metaphorical shoulder to let it know to release adrenaline which leads to a release of cortisol, know familiarly as the stress hormone. Your brain doesn’t want to make you stressed; it wants to keep you alive. It has to assume that any perceived threat is valid and it responds by stimulating an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and respiration. The blood flow is increased to your major muscle groups and diverted away from non-essentials, like digestion and immunity (after all, it doesn’t matter is you digest that steak or ward off that cold if you fall to the saber tooth in the next few minutes).

Our bodies lie to us.

And we so often listen. We may or may not be aware of the stressor, but we are certainly aware of our body’s response. We feel the agitation, the unease in the gut. We instinctively want to lash out, to attack the threat at its source. Or, we elect the other option and bury our heads, fleeing from the danger through action or addiction. If all threats were as simple as a saber tooth, this strategy would be effective. After all, a saber tooth and a human cannot peacefully coexist. The problem comes in that our modern lives possess endless saber toothed imposters, threats from every angle. Some of these dangers can be be effectively fought (a mistaken bill) or fled from (an obnoxious landlord). But, in many cases, we have to find a way to coexist with these imposters. They do not directly threaten our lives but, if we allow them, they can wear away at our defenses by overtaxing our adrenal system.

Our bodies lie to us.

They tell us that we must fight or flee. That we have only two choices. But there is a third option available. An option that will counteract the cascade started when the brain senses a threat. An option that teaches the body that the threats are not real and that you can be peaceful alongside of them. An option that uses the mind to teach the body.

Just breathe.

That’s it. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? But it’s not, especially when your body is screaming at you to move your fists or your feet. It’s not easy to trust, to let go of the impulse and to stay with the breath. It’s not easy to encourage the breath to slow and to allow to heart to follow suit.

Mindfulness meditation changes the body. It removes cortisol from the blood, essentially turning down the dial on the body’s alert system. Even more powerfully, meditation causes changes at the cellular level, counteracting the influence of flight or fight.

Our bodies lie to us.

They tell us that we do not have a choice. That if something is stressful, we have to be stressed.

Instead of moving your body, try moving your mind.

The mind knows the truth. We are only stressed if we allow ourselves to be. So, instead of fighting or fleeing,

just breathe.

Unless the saber tooth is real. Then, please run like the wind:)

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9 thoughts on “Flight, Fight or Breathe

  1. In this post, you simply and brilliantly sum up the main theory of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which I think of as mindfulness therapy. I’m in a DBT skills group for family members with kids who have mental health disorders and while it’s truly wonderful, the whole thing boils down to exactly what you wrote: breathe. Just breathe before anything else.

  2. Love it! I can use this myself (if I can just remember to!) but more importantly, I would love to teach this to my son, a teen with autism, whose brain is frequently flooded with panic signals.

    1. That is a challenge with anyone on the spectrum. The students that I’ve worked with that have autism seem more in tune with their primal brain, which makes them sometimes scary intuitive yet also prone to irrational panic. Does he respond well to repetitive movements (pacing, rocking, etc.)? I’ve know several people who use that to self-sooth and I’ve even found myself drawn to it at times.

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