How to Control and Benefit From the Fight-or-Flight Response

If you are like most people and you don’t like confrontations, then you will likely be familiar with the symptoms of the fight-or-flight response such as increased heart rate, butterflies in your stomach, trembling and sweating.

Most of us consider this to be a rather destructive phenomenon. When you’re trying to make a point, to be taken seriously, or to win an argument, it hardly helps to look like a state and to be stuttering over your words. In the worst case scenarios this fight-or-flight response can cause you to completely freeze up leading to you choking on stage or failing to perform physically.

What’s Going On?

So what causes this effect?

Essentially the fight-or-flight response occurs when your brain registers something as a threat and thus responds by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters designed to get you ready to either fight or run away. In the wild these hormones would help us to increase our reaction times, heighten our senses and generally perform better to improve our chances of survival. Specifically, this process raises levels of norepinephrine, epinephrine, dopamine, cortisol and glutamine. This causes changes in the autonomic nervous system which regulates heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate etc.

But today we are rarely chased by lions and as a rule our ‘stressors’ tend to be much more abstract and chronic – consisting of things like angry bosses, financial trouble and awkward customer service staff. For all these reasons, the fight-or-flight response just isn’t as ‘useful’ as it once was and in fact often gets in the way by increasing our anxiety and nervousness.

Putting the Response to Good Use

Despite the negative connotations of the fight-or-flight response, on paper it is actually a highly useful phenomenon and one which we should celebrate. When you’re in this state, you will be faster, stronger, more alert and have heightened senses. This is essentially you performing at your physical and mental peak – you just have to learn to control it.

The first way to do this is to embrace the reaction rather than thinking of it as a negative thing. If you find yourself getting worked up before and interview then recognize that it will help you to think quicker and to be more on the ball. If you get stressed by the response then you will only feel worse. This is not a sign that you are ‘panicking’ and it is not something to be embarrassed by, just go with it and let it empower you.

And did you know that the fight-or-flight response also suppresses emotional responses? That means you’re less likely to feel scared (in the regular sense) or upset so that you can stay more focused on the task in hand. Even your pain threshold will increase and your blood will clot so that you don’t lose as much in case you sustain an injury!

At the same time, you should stop for a moment and take a deep breath, then continue with deep, slow breathing. This helps to slow down your heart rate and engage the parasympathetic nervous system that helps you to return to your ‘rest and digest’ state. If you can get this right, you will find a ‘half way’ point and some theories suggest this may even be the secret to achieving the highly sought after ‘flow state’.

Like everything, mastering your fight-or-flight response is something that you can train for. The more regularly you encounter and overcome this response, the easier it will be in future. This is one of the reasons why doing stand-up comedy classes is so beneficial; and why generally getting outside of your comfort zone is so important for your ability to stay cool in a crisis and to perform at your best in any situation.

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