Written by therapist Pete Marlow
I was watching video clips from an old talk show where the host would have their producer, a middle-aged man who HATED haunted houses, go through a haunted house with a celebrity and have a camera follow them and get their funny reactions. It was pretty entertaining, and after watching a couple of the clips (this was a regular segment around Halloween so YouTube has plenty), I started to notice the different reactions each person would have to being frightened. This got me thinking about the fight, flight, or freeze response and a potential blog post.
How Our Brains Respond To Stress
The stress response (fight, flight, or freeze) is an innate reaction to being presented with something we perceive as threatening. What happens in your brain when you’re walking through a haunted house and someone dressed up like a hideous monster jumps out at you holding a chainsaw and you scream and run, scream and start throwing punches, or clam up and get into the fetal position? Well, first, a message is sent from the amygdala, the part of your brain involved in emotional processing, to your hypothalamus, which is like the control center for your nervous system. The amygdala is basically telling the hypothalamus that there is danger and something has to be done right now to protect yourself.
The nervous system is the part of our brain that controls bodily functions that happen without us noticing, such as breathing, blood pressure, and our heartbeat. The two components are the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is sympathetic to your needs at that moment and initiates one of the three responses to stress (fight, flight, freeze) to try and protect you. The parasympathetic nervous system comes along later and calms you down. This process, from the amygdala to the nervous system, is so ingrained in our body that it starts even before our eyes and brain have the chance to process what we are seeing. This is why when we are frightened by something in a haunted house, we jump back, cower, or start throwing punches and then soon after are laughing and calm as our brains have had time to process and realize there is no real danger.
Leaving behind the haunted house example, this same stress response happens when you’re at work up against a tight deadline or at home getting into an argument with your partner. The amygdala and hypothalamus still work together to bring about the same response from the sympathetic nervous system, even though there is no imminent physical danger. You sense your fists tightening, jaw clenching, and voice rising (fight), shortness of breath, feeling restless (flight), or feeling cold/numb and being unable to move (freeze).
Managing The Stress Response
It can feel like a losing battle when this response happens automatically, without our having any control, however, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post if there wasn’t a helpful solution. So, here are some helpful tips:
Identifying triggers. This step involves meeting with a counselor to identify what triggers these types of stress responses for you. This knowledge means you can be on the lookout for those triggers and even prepare yourself.
Deep breathing. Taking several deep breaths helps override your body’s stress response and signals that there is nothing to fear. Make a concerted effort to try it right now and tell me you don’t feel more relaxed.
Focusing on 1-2 calming words. Repeating to yourself something as simple as, “You’re safe,” or, “Calm,” combined with deep breathing, can have a calming effect.
Touch something. Keep an object in your pocket or on your desk nearby that you can pick up and feel when you sense your nervous system has been triggered. It can be something like a pen that you rub between your hands, a smooth coin or rock, or a squishy ball. Focus on how it feels to help you bring your attention back to the present moment.
Visualize a peaceful scene. Visualization can be powerful for some people. Just imagine a place that is free from stress, like a sandy beach with the waves crashing on the shore.
Exercise. Working out can relieve some excess stress that can cause you to feel triggered more easily. You don’t have to wait until the end of the workday either, but you can go for a walk right after the stressful event.
I can’t guarantee that all of these will work in a haunted house, but if you struggle with knowing how to handle your stress response, contact a counselor at Optimum Joy today to make an appointment! They can help you process what triggers your stress response and help you establish some practical ways to handle it more effectively.