Hack Your Nervous System: Understand Your Body’s Response to Threats and Change It
You’re getting ready to give a big speech and you feel your heart start to race. You’re driving down the road and suddenly the car stops in front of you and you hit the brakes. Your boss is yelling at you and you’ll say whatever you can to stop it.
These are all instances in which your body will trigger a response to help you deal with the problem in front of you. A physiological reaction activates in your nervous system that’s aimed at helping you survive what you’re facing. You might have heard of these reactions before as Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn responses. These evolutionary responses can be incredibly helpful at times. For example, when you need to slam on your breaks, your body can produce adrenaline to increase your reaction time, protecting you from a car accident.
While these responses are vital to our survival, sometimes our body doesn’t know how to separate a real threat from a perceived threat. Our reactions then become overused and involuntary. If not addressed, overusing these responses can begin to experience episodic or chronic stress and can deteriorate the body and mind, leading to depression, anxiety, and other health concerns.
A good example of this might be when you prepare to give a speech. Your body might be sending you signals that getting up on that stage will mean that you’re going to get hurt. Your body will start to tell you to run! You’ll start to feel the physical effects of that extra stress on your body. There are lots of factors that will impact the way your body responds, like if you’ve had lots of practice giving a speech before if you have good coping skills for anxiety, or what your understanding of risk is in that situation. Nevertheless, many people experience this bodily reaction that feels the same as when we are faced with a threat and our biology kicks in.
There may be underlying causes that are causing you extra stress, and there may be strategies to help you cope. In learning more about your body’s unique response to threats, we can begin to understand how to hack your nervous system and change the ways we respond to and understand stressors.
The Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn Checklist
The first step to hack your nervous system is to identify what’s happening in your body as a response to stress. Go through the checklist and identify how you react to a perceived or real threat. Pick the last example you can think of when you had a big reaction to an event and keep this in mind as you fill out the checklist.
Fight: facing any perceived threat aggressively. When your fight response is activated your brain will send signals to your body to rapidly prepare you for the physical demands of fighting.
Some signs to know if your fight response is being activated:
Increased Heart Rate
Increased Strength and Energy
Feeling intense anger
Feeling the desire to hit, punch, or attack someone or something
Flight: The flight response prepares your body for the physical demand of running away from or evading danger.
Some signs to know if your flight response is being activated:
Feeling tense or trapped
Constantly moving legs, feet, and arms
The sensation of numbness in extremities
Dilated or darting eyes
Increased Heart Rate
Freeze: The freeze response can be activated when you are unable to move or act against a threat.
Some signs to know if your freeze response is being activated:
Sense of dread or foreboding
Decreased heart rate or breathing
Feelings of numbness or detachment
Loss of verbal communication
Increased startle reflex
Sense of dread
Fawn: The fawn response can be activated when you try to avoid or minimize a threat by attending to the emotions of those around you, despite your own needs.
Avoidance of Conflict
Difficulty Saying “No”
Inability to Express disagreement
Difficulty setting boundaries
Fear of rejection
After filling out this checklist, which response do you find yourself moving towards most often? Take a moment to think of other stress-activating events in your life. Do you largely identify with one of these responses? Take a moment to reflect on how filling out this checklist made you feel.
Now that you have a better understanding of how you usually react to threats in your life, it’s important to think about what coping strategies you could use as a way to hack your nervous system and manage your response.
Below you will find a coping skill paired with each response. These coping skills are selected as a beginning process to help overcome our stress response, remain present, and achieve the outcome you are looking for.
Progressive muscle relaxation is a helpful technique when entering into a fight response. This involves tensing and then gradually releasing different muscle groups in your body. When you intentionally relax your muscles you can teach your body that you are safe and do not need to prepare for a fight. This can help promote a greater sense of calmness and activate a soothing system in your body to counteract the physical tension that often accompanies the fight response. Start with your toes; curl them tightly for a count of five and then release the tension and relax completely. Repeat the process with your feet, calf muscles, thighs, buttocks, abdomen, chest (take a deep breath, hold for five, and then exhale slowly), hands and forearms, biceps, shoulders, neck, face, and then the whole body.
Box Breathing is a simple yet effective relaxation technique that might be useful when you feel yourself enter a flight reaction. As your body is preparing you to respond to a threat, you can practice box breathing to calm down your nervous system, activate your soothing system, and tell your body that there isn’t a threat. To practice box breathing imagine following the sides of a square shape. As you go along the top of the box from left to right you inhale for a count of for. As you go down the right side of the box you hold that breath for four counts. As you go along the bottom of the box from right to left you slowly exhale for four counts. And then as you follow the left side of the box from bottom to top, you hold that breath for four counts. You can repeat this technique as needed until you feel your body start to calm down.
If you often freeze, a helpful coping technique might be the 5,4,3,2,1 ground exercise which helps anchor yourself in the present moment and focus on the sensory experiences around you. Instead of focusing on the threat, you can distract yourself and focus on this task of naming 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
If your response to stressors is fawn, or attend to other’s needs before your own, it might be beneficial to try a real-time body scan to bring your consciousness back into yourself and your body. This can help you be present with your emotions as they come up, and with practice, can help you bolster up your thoughts, desires, and emotions. An easy way to do a body scan is to take a deep breath through your nose, and out through the mouth. Starting at the top of your head, gently scan down through your body, noticing what feels comfortable or uncomfortable. Try to scan yourself with as little judgment as possible, acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that are coming up for you in the moment.
Another beneficial coping skill for the fawn response is developing positive self-talk; this coping skill often takes place outside of the stress response since it requires practice. This can be a helpful practice to help you recognize and validate your needs. When outside of the fawn response, take some time to journal or process through positive statements about yourself. Create affirmations and repeat them regularly. Challenge negative thoughts by asking yourself whether they are based on facts or if they are assumptions. Take some time to learn more about negative self-talk and how that can impact your thinking.
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Understanding and effectively managing your body’s fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses can be a powerful tool to hack your nervous system and change how you respond to threats. By recognizing your reactions triggered by stress, anxiety, or fear, you can practice helpful coping mechanisms to impact your overall well-being. As you practice identifying your responses and practicing these strategies, remember that you are not alone. There are many therapists here at The Center for Growth who are ready to step into this journey with you and help you hack your nervous system!
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