We learn in therapy how to recognize that instinctual moment when our systems kick into high gear–often referred to as the “fight or flight” moment. Then we do everything we know how to calm that part of our brains so we can think rationally and focus on next steps. The important thing is to understand what’s actually happening inside our bodies in that moment. That’s the key to learning how to better regulate that involuntary reaction.
First, it’s important to understand that the reaction comes from a survival instinct. Our brain and body work together to keep us alive. When a threat is perceived, that part of our brain that is singularly focused on survival starts setting off alarm bells. Our bodies respond to those alarm bells and try to get us to safety. If we don’t feel safe, the alarms don’t stop.
Sometimes, there truly is something chasing after us, and we do need to run away or fight the threat. Many times in our daily lives, this reaction happens to a stimulus that isn’t quite a threat. Our rational brains will help us to recognize the difference between a threat and a warning. When we realize it’s just a warning, we can rationally conceptualize our next steps to take us back to safety.
During this process, our bodies are activated. Our nervous systems react in accordance to the messages shooting down from our brains. One technique to help calm our systems in these fight or flight moments is to tap into the parasympathetic nervous system. When this system is activated, it helps our entire bodies feel grounded and safe. It’s a bottom-up approach, where we send the “all clear” safety signal from our bodies up to our brains.
Deep breaths are a quick and efficient way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. We tend to take quick, shallow breaths when we were about to take action (e.g., sprinting away from an animal chasing us). In order to counteract that instinct, taking longer and deeper breaths can reverse the process. When your breath fills your belly, the nerves that activate the parasympathetic nervous system are engaged.
When I find myself getting stressed, my first step is sit up straight and take these deep belly breaths. Sometimes it takes five deep breaths to calm me down, and sometimes it takes a full 15-minutes of sitting and breathing peacefully. Every body is different, and every stressor has different requirements for soothing. Regularly practicing deeper breathing and self-regulation of that fight-or-flight response can lead to better engagement in conversations and healthier relationships.
An Thai, MS, Marriage & Family Therapy Resident, provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our Sterling, VA office and virtually to those located in Virginia. Call or email today to schedule your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with An!