Stress – Our Fight, Flight or Freeze Response and COVID-19

Something we hear a lot about, especially recently, is how stressed everyone is. Do you ever stop to think about what that means? Does stress refer to how we act? What we say? How we think? The emotions we feel?

Oftentimes, when someone says they’re “stressed” it refers to thoughts, feelings, or behaviours that we might judge to be very negative. After viewing stress in this way for much of our life it can be very interesting to understand what stress actually is and how the stress response is critical for our survival!

Stress has been around for a while

Over thousands of years, our human species has evolved to include the stress response because it keeps us alive and functioning. For a moment, I would like you to imagine a scenario that causes you some amount of stress (ex: driving in heavy traffic, going to a job interview, watching the news, or missing a step when you’re walking up the stairs).

Pay close attention to how your body feels when you imagine this scenario. Some of our responses might include:

  • increased heart rate
  • faster breathing
  • tingling/energy in the body (especially the outer extremities)
  • nausea/loss of appetite; and
  • our attention becoming hyper-focused on scanning for threats or abnormalities

These are the exact responses that helped our early ancestors be faster and stronger in the face of threats to their safety such as large predators or even competing humans. This is known as the fight, flight or freeze response.

Our response to stress hasn’t changed – Our challenges have

A problem with this response is that the type of stressors we encounter in everyday life do not ordinarily include physical threats to our safety the way sabre tooth tigers or giant bears did for our ancestors. The things that stress us out tend to relate to relationships, our jobs, money problems, or changes and transitions in our life circumstances.

Unfortunately, our biological stress response is not able to discriminate between these types of threats and does very little to help us out, but our body thinks it’s being very helpful to us! Try to imagine these shots of adrenaline and cortisol racing through your body as your brain’s way of telling you:

“Don’t worry buddy! I’m primed and ready for action! I’m here for you!”

There is nothing wrong with you when you feel this way – it means that your body is healthy and is showing up for you to take on issues at hand. Our biology just hasn’t adapted as quickly as the challenges we face in modern society – that’s all!

Fight, flight or freeze and long-term stress

Another dilemma that we have right now is that our stress response is designed for very temporary threats to our safety. For example, imagine that a car isn’t slowing down for a stop sign and you need to either honk you horn at them to get their attention (fight), speed up to be safely out of their way (flight) or slam on your own brakes (freeze). As you can imagine, this adrenaline shot that you would feel is not sustainable over time but is very helpful for quick reactions such as this.

If this response is kept up over time, we can become exhausted, develop “burn out”, or even get physically sick. Over time, our brains also adapt to being under stress and will become more stressed more often. COVID-19 is a good example of a threat to our safety that is not passing within that few second window our stress response is designed for.

Therefore it’s important to see how our responses to this stressor might be harming us in the long term. Let’s have a look at COVID-19 for examples of how the fight, flight, or freeze response might be playing out in our everyday lives below. Try to think of how each response might have helped keep our early ancestors functioning well and is designed for our survival.

Ways to manage your response & long-term stress

The great news is that there are specific actions you can take to disrupt the fight, flight or freeze response. In fact, by being aware of the physical sensations you feel during stress you are already engaged in grounding, which means that you are redirecting your attention away from stressors that may or may not be there and placing that focus on what is immediately present in the here and now.

For those who practice mindfulness or meditation this process will sound very familiar! If you are interested in exploring this as an option, a great app for an introduction to meditation is called Stop, Breathe & Think and there are a TON of other online resources out there.

Once we are aware of our current stress responses, it can be most helpful to work with the way our stress response functions instead of against it. During the fight, flight or freeze response, the area of our brain that is responsible for rational thought actually gets decreased blood flow as more blood is directed to the areas of our brain that are responsible for our survival needs.

Because of this, when stressed it can be very difficult to remember details, problem solve, or prevent ourselves from reacting to our surroundings because these areas of the brain are not as activated. This is why it is very difficult to “think our way out” of being stressed.

A much more effective route to stress management works with how our brain and bodies function by taking physical action to stop our brain from signalling the fight, flight, or freeze response. There are many ways to do this, some include the following:

Practice Deep Breathing

Slowed and deepened breathing in turn slows our heart rate and lowers blood pressure, which signals to the brain that the threat to our safety has passed and puts our body into “rest and digest” mode.

Try it out: Place a hand over your belly button and focus on your inhale expanding this area and falling with a slow and controlled exhale. Scan the outside of a door frame with your eyes and match your exhale to the “long sides” in order to extend it. You can also use YouTube and a timer/app to count your breaths for you in a slow rhythmic pattern.

Take Time to Be Aware of your Immediate Surroundings

This will allow your brain to perceive that the “danger” has passed. Some people focus on the feeling of their feet on the floor or imagine roots holding them there.

Try it out: Identify 5 things you can see, 4 you can hear, 3 you can touch, 2 you can smell and 1 you can taste.

Try Physical Soothing

This can include things like weighted blankets, a long and firm hug from yourself or a loved one, or placing your hands over your heart while speaking calming and compassionate phrases to yourself such as “you are safe” or “you can do this”.

Stay Active

Another useful approach is to provide an outlet for your stress response, in other words – let’s get PHYSICAL!

For those who experience the flight or freeze response getting active will not feel natural but it is highly effective. Not only does getting “into our bodies” productively use the adrenaline and cortisol accumulating in our system, but it also tends to take our attention into the “here and now” instead of focusing on unchanging threats to our safety which tends to cause the stress response.

Being physical does not necessarily mean doing a ton of push-ups and burpees (thank goodness) but to find a physical outlet that is meaningful and enjoyable for you – some examples include:

  • Gardening
  • Playing with your kids on the floor
  • Deep cleaning
  • Yoga (Yoga with Adriene on YouTube is free and very accessible for beginners)
  • Creating Art
  • Dancing to your favourite pump-up jam
  • Physically active meditations such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation

For more tips on coping strategies, see our previous blog post 7 Tips for Coping with COVID-19.

The bottom line is, if you are worried or uncomfortable with stress being present please do realize that you are not alone in this. This is a very difficult time for all of us and your stress response is showing up for you because it is functioning properly and because you are human.

As always, if you’re looking for more support please call our counselling team at 306-525-0521. We have daily phone-in/video appointments from Monday to Friday and are here for you regardless of how well you think you might be coping (or not!). You are valued and your needs are important to us. 💙