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Anxiety and Depression As A Fight or Flight Response

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health challenges, It can be easy to trudge on, not seeking help and just putting up with the thoughts and feelings associated with both anxiety and depression. This can be compounded by feeling ashamed when overwhelmed by even the mere idea of going to work or catching up with friends. When even the simplest of tasks, like getting out of bed, seems challenging, frustration can start to loom, causing a further spiral and withdrawal from the world around us.

When finally, symptoms can no longer be ignored, it can be easy to jump to medication for a fix without truly understanding exactly what is happening within our bodies. Taking the time to understand anxiety and depression as natural responses highlights how these types of mental health challenges are less about you and your ability to cope but rather a variety of factors that are out of your control. 

This extra insight might help you decide on a different management plan, looking at ways to naturally support your body with the symptoms it is experiencing.

Anxiety And Our Fight Or Flight Response

Each feeling that we have is purposeful, crafted by our bodies over thousands of evolutionary years to keep us alive. They are natural responses triggered by our body for a specific purpose. 

If your body needs food, you feel hungry. If your body needs water, you feel thirsty. If your body needs sleep, you feel tired.

Feeling anxious is no different. It’s a response that has been designed to register danger, activate our fight or flight response and allow us to focus and move our bodies appropriately. 

When an anxiety response is triggered and a fight or flight response is activated, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are pumped into our bodies, priming us for action. When this happens, symptoms can look like:

When we have anxiety, we are continuously scanning our environment for threats. This traps us in our fight or flight response. This reaction can explain the different symptoms of anxiety; for example, if we overthink, we are trying to anticipate danger, and when we have muscle tension, we are getting ready to respond to danger. 

But in this modern world, is this natural evolutionary response letting us down and failing to keep us safe? 

Historically, as we lived in smaller communities with simpler lives, the number of times our fight or flight response would have been triggered is likely to be significantly smaller than what we experience today. In today’s world, we are less likely to need to escape from a sabretooth tiger, but we can experience an endless stream of small but equally impactful stressors. They are just not of the furry beast variety.

Morning alarm

Early morning email from the boss

No milk in the fridge for your morning coffee

A bus cancellation notification

Missing house keys

Work colleague phones in sick

Complaint email from a client

Pay discussion with a team member

Missed lunch break

Overrun meeting

Missed deadline for a proposal

Delayed school pick up

No food in the house for dinner

Late night email from a team member

Leaving something important at home

Each of these may be trivial, but as they accumulate, they can be hugely impactful. These small stressors trigger our body’s fight or flight response and all the hormonal and body reactions that go with it. The challenge with that is that we could experience an excessive amount each day rather than a handful each week. This overloads our body, putting stress on our nervous system and causing various long-term mental and physical health issues. It also means that the body’s natural ‘relaxation response’, which is designed to calm us down and reset our body by pumping it with different hormones, does not get a chance to activate, compounding the impacts on our body even further.

With this insight, it’s easier to see why activities like meditation, mindfulness, relaxing massages, a walk on the beach and a run can benefit and support a reduction of anxiety-related symptoms. Anything that can give your body time out from these small stressors whilst helping to trigger a relaxation response will provide relief for your body and its nervous system.

Depression And Our Freeze Response

When we talk about anxiety and the fight or flight response, we associate our feelings and reactions with a heightened state of awareness. When thinking about depression and the freeze response, it feels like a completely polar opposite reaction, with a slowing of the body and a shutting down from the world around us.

Although these reactions may look to be the opposite of each other, they are, in fact, closer than you might think. Both reactions are natural reactions designed to keep you safe. Both trigger a release of hormones that creates the feelings, reactions and actions we notice in our bodies.

The freeze response activates when our brain decides that we cannot fight or run away from the situation or that the potential threat is too overwhelming. For this reason, this freeze reaction is commonly seen in children who are unable to escape from stressful situations.

We can freeze when dealing with life-threatening circumstances, like when someone attacks us. Equally, a freeze response can be triggered in small ways: a feeling of dread when you have a test to sit as you avoid studying, avoiding sitting the exam altogether, or disappearing inwards and going silent when dealing with an angry altercation.

When we are thinking about a freeze response, we often see the following reactions:

  • Unable to move or defend yourself
  • Numbness
  • Detachment from thoughts and feelings. 
  • Feelings of helplessness. 
  • Feeling of shrinking into yourself or trying to disappear. 

Notice that these are all common symptoms of depression. For this reason, symptoms of depression can be comprehended as the body going into freeze mode to guard itself against a threat.

We often believe the freeze response to be inaction; however, this is not the case. This response is hardwired into our brain’s survival centre, an evolutionary step that has kept us safe for thousands of years. It is automatically triggered by highly stressful situations, and it is the brain’s most desperate attempt at survival. 

But what happens to our bodies when the threat or stress has passed? It makes sense that when we are exposed to ongoing, repeated stress that this depression of energy gets worse. Therefore, when we are in a safe environment, we would expect our energy to start to flow again. However, what we need to be mindful of is the transition period, where we are physically and mentally safe, but our nervous system is overactive to triggers that remind us of the past. This is typically where most depression sufferers find themselves when seeking help for their depression symptoms.

Just like the management of anxiety symptoms, when calming the body with techniques like mindfulness, meditation and yoga are seen as vitally important. The same can be said for depression and the freeze response. The focus is the same, to calm the nervous system. Healing our nervous system and bringing ourselves out of the seemingly endless freeze response can support a reduction of depression symptoms.


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