Updated: Oct 3, 2022
Today we're here with Sarah Vallely, mindfulness teacher, coach, and author. Sarah has been teaching meditation and mindfulness for the past two decades training and certifying others to teach mindfulness as well. Sarah is the author of four books. Her latest book is titled time to dwell on the 55 teachings of TSD mindfulness. In today's episode, we are going to discuss fighter flight. What happens to our body during periods of fight or flight? Can mindfulness help us during times of fight or flight? And can affirmations help to recondition our mind and body for the inevitability of all the other episodes of fight or flight we will experience throughout our life? This is Jacob DeRossett. Hi, Sarah. How are you?
I'm great, Jacob thanks. “Mindfulness of fight or flight responses in a technological age.” The first thing we need to know about fight or flight is they don't refer to it technically as “fight or flight” anymore. It's “fight, flight, or freeze”. And in some groups, they have added “fawn”, which means to appease someone. But I will refer to it as “fight or flight”. When we go into fight or flight, it's because our senses detect a threat, and our sympathetic nervous system is activated. And when this happens, our body releases certain hormones, these hormones increase cardiac contraction, otherwise known as increasing your heart rate. These hormones increase perspiration, increase blood glucose concentrations, constrict some of your blood vessels and dilate other blood vessels contract your uterine muscles, dilate, your pupils, dilate the bronchi in your lungs. And these hormones also decrease saliva production in your mouth. This is a lot of physical activity going on in your body.
The increased perspiration is so our body can cool down so we don't overheat. The constriction and dilation of the blood vessels are to redirect your blood flow. So it's taking blood away from your fingers and your toes and your skin and directing that blood to your large muscles, biceps, your thighs, and your heart. And the increased cardiac contraction is to pump more blood to those muscles and the bronchi are dilated, to bring in more oxygen to distribute it to those large muscles. One of those hormones is adrenaline and a fun fact about adrenaline--it stays in your body sometimes for a whole hour. So if you get triggered into this fight or flight, and you figure out that, you're still in fight or flight for maybe an hour. So it can cause stress, even though psychologically, you understand there isn't stress. This whole process is exhausting. And you might be thinking, “Oh, this only happens to me a few times a year, that time when I almost got in a car accident that time when I thought I lost my child and the big crowd lost my job.” But actually, we get triggered into fight or flight quite regularly. And I was reading a study that shows people who have a diagnosable anxiety disorder get triggered into fight or flight just as often as people who do not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder. If you don't necessarily have high anxiety, you're still getting triggered and the information in this episode will be helpful.
Sympathetic activation in chronic anxiety: not just at the “height” of stress. Editorial Focus on “Relative burst amplitude of muscle sympathetic nerve activity is an indicator of altered sympathetic outflow in chronic anxiety”
The other interesting finding in the study--if you do have a level of anxiety, that's diagnoseable--Yes, you are getting triggered into fight or flight just as much as somebody else. But when you get triggered into fight or flight, it's a more intense reaction. On a physical level, you're going through a lot.
Most people associate fight or flight responses with physical danger or something big. And so some of those situations might be a world event, concern about your physical health, sensing you might not be physically safe, fear of losing your job, and fear of losing your current living situation. But fight or flight is triggered by other things besides physical threats or really big events.
They're triggered by a threat to your emotional stability. Triggered by a threat to your reputation, the way someone might perceive you, or the way you believe someone is perceiving you. And also can be triggered by a threat to your status quo. The possibility that something in your life as it exists now has the potential to change. That in itself can trigger your fight or flight. In our technological world, some of the situations that might be triggering you into fight or flight are the following:
I invite you to listen and choose about five of these that you believe that you experience and jot them down.
· Concerned your life will change if you succeed at something (believe it or not, you can go into fight or flight because something awesome is going to happen. If you succeed at something, things might change in your life. And that can be threatening on some level).
· Believing, you could fail at something
· Concerned about the physical health of someone you love
· Sensing you might not be emotionally safe
· Believing you are making yourself too vulnerable in a certain situation.
· Worries about your mental health, worries about the mental health of someone you love.
· Fear of appearing weak, if you become emotional
· Fear of being reactionary around other people, if you become emotional,
· Worried you will spiral down into negativity if you become emotional
· Regretful about an action you took
· Believing you will not be able to realize your dreams
· Concerned an aspect of your personality will cause strain or conflict in a particular situation
· Fear you will not be able to do something correctly
· Concerned a skill or ability of yours is declining
· Afraid of being abandoned, rejected or neglected
· Afraid of being verbally attacked
· Concerned you will feel trapped in a relationship or in a situation
· Concerned you will not be able to meet the needs of someone you love.
· Worried something you said is going to have a negative effect on a situation
· Worried your plans even made are not going to work out
· Feeling like someone is questioning your integrity
When enter into interactions with other people, I am very afraid of what I'll say. I have a lot of fear around what's going to come out of my mouth. And then if somebody says something is triggering to me, am I going to then be reactive about that? Will I have control of that?
Yeah. And that goes right back to feeling like there's a threat to your reputation, and possibly a threat to your emotional stability. Feeling threatened in this way can have such a physical effect on our being. Mindfulness practice is such a wonderful way to become aware of that process. Become aware of the thoughts that let you know that you are feeling threatened in that way. And then becoming aware of how your body is responding to your breath rate--are you noticing there some tightness in your gut area? “Feeling like someone is questioning your integrity,” that's a big one for me. I have a physical reaction to that one.
Are these all not just forms of stress?
My perspective is that stress originates in three ways. One is stress comes just from our thinking, or simply from our thought processes. Or stress comes from our fight or flight response. So yes, these are specifically stressors that activate our fight or flight response. And then the third source of stress is past trauma. It's a subtle difference. And sometimes there's overlap--sometimes our stress is coming from all three of those or two of those.
Do you feel like the past trauma affects the fight or flight and then the thinking?
I believe that sometimes we have one of these fight or flight type responses that triggers past trauma. You are doubling down--you're going to experience it on different levels. You're going to experience it in this fight or flight way. And then you're also going to experience this retrigger trauma away, which is a little bit different. The retriggered trauma is emotional. We're feeling these deep emotions of abandonment of loss rejection, which we might not necessarily experience if we're just in a simple fight or flight. But when you have that dual situation, then you're going to experience both together. And that can be intense. And then what normally happens is it is so intense that it's triggering your cognition and your thought process in a very intense way. Moving you into anger, moving into resentment, shame, and things like that. Mindfulness is so helpful for this process because we can start to piece together this response to what happens in our life. And the idea is, is to isolate them. Can we just experience the fight or flight without necessarily having it affect our cognition? Can we just experience the retrigger trauma without it triggering our fight or flight? That's the mindfulness practice I teach--how to experience those individually, so they are not as intense and you can move into healing.
In the isolating is it more or less a practice in labeling to identify the root of this. The reason I'm asking is it sounds pretty difficult in a moment, especially a physical sensation of fight or flight that you're experiencing that is affecting your cognition and has triggered past trauma. So how would you help somebody if they wanted to just figure out how to begin this process?
You are right on target with that. The naming is a key part of that process. If you are having a fight or flight response, you would focus on the physical sensations in your gut area, and you might label it “tight”, “I feel tight.” And if you notice the way that this fight or flight response is affecting your cognition, then you might label that “worry”, “fear”, whatever form that comes in. The labeling allows you to accept what's happening. When you accept what's happening, then you can bring yourself down a little bit and process through it. The first step in processing through something is accepting what's happening. Labeling is also important with the processing through trauma. We want to move into that core emotion, stay in that core emotion by using labeling, just saying “loss. Wow, this hurts.”
Wow, this is great. I think that I had done this process in therapy, I would talk for an hour and then he would have four or five words that seemed like magic. Then when I start to experience these things again, I had the words for that experience.
It sounds like your therapist was helping you with the terminology, the vocabulary to label what you were experiencing, which helped you feel like you were understanding your process. That's another benefit of the labeling is it brings you into this understanding, like I understand what's happening, instead of feeling like this big ball of emotion of fear and anger, and you can't decipher what's going on.
I normalized everything I was experiencing and labeled it. I've never heard it explained in this way. And this really, resonates with me.
Another technique that can help you with the fight or flight so it doesn't affect your cognition so much, or it doesn't trigger past trauma is validation. Validating yourself by saying, “It's understandable that I'm having this reaction in this situation.”
The consequences of this process of going into fight or flight, are physical, which we already covered--all of those changes that are going on in your body, redirecting the blood, your heart rate, your breathing. Cognition is also affected, for example, beginning to think worrying thoughts. Or experiencing overthinking, such as planning. It would be better to just take a moment and calm yourself down. And the other thing that can happen on a cognitive level is when you're triggered, and you look around, and you're trying to find what's triggering, but you can't find what's triggering. It's possible, you can turn on yourself and internalize the experience--start putting yourself down and devaluing yourself getting angry at yourself. And so that's a really serious cognitive response to the fight or flight, and something to be mindful of. And immediately when that happens, you'll give yourself some self-compassion, saying something like, “I don't know why I'm triggered right now. But it's understandable, this happens. There's something that my senses are picking up. And it's okay that I'm triggered at this moment.”
The other consequence is behavioral. Some of the behavioral responses are trying to soothe the discomfort with substances, with food with unhealthy relationships, or taking our stress out on other people. We can use mindfulness to address these, especially behavioral responses. We can become mindful of the process and how it's affecting our body, how it's affecting our thoughts. And say, “I know I'm in this fight or flight process, I'm going to be careful of the actions I take.” That's a really good way to use mindfulness when you're triggered in this way.
On a cognitive level, we can use mindfulness to notice how our fight or flight is affecting our thoughts. We are going into worried thinking--we're going into over planning, things like that. And we can redirect by noticing the sounds in our environment for five minutes, feeling the physical sensations in our body for five minutes, paying attention to our breath for five minutes. However, I have found that traditional mindfulness is not the most effective way to address the physical consequences of fight or flight. Those of you who practice mindfulness might notice some days you have anxiety and you sit down and practice mindfulness and your anxiety goes away, and you feel better. But sometimes you have anxiety, you sit down to practice mindfulness, and it doesn't go away. I believe that those times that it doesn't go away, it's because the anxiety is fight or flight, and it is in your body. And the traditional mindfulness techniques such as single-pointed focus, paying attention to your breath, paying attention to the sounds of the environment, paying attention to your physical sensations. And then the other type of mindfulness is open awareness, where we're just simply aware of whatever comes into our consciousness. Those don't, in my opinion, bring down that fight or flight response on a physical level.
To some degree they help but I have found other practices to work better. One of them is affirmations. And I don't consider affirmations mindfulness, I don't consider affirmations, mantras or, breathwork mindfulness.
What category would you put affirmations in?
That would be practice and “intentional thinking” and intentional thinking is very powerful. It's that idea of thinking of something on purpose, it can have some wonderful effects on our being. But one of the issues with intentional thinking is sometimes it gets in the way of our healing process. Sometimes we need to go into feeling some difficult emotions to move into healing. And if we are using intentional thinking to avoid feeling some of these deep emotions, then we miss out on going through a healing process.
Reading about stoicism, listening about stoicism, and trying to implement it, became a hammer I was hitting over my head. “I shouldn't be experiencing this emotion in this way. I need to be this way. I need to get up early. And I need to do this.” And then when I went to therapy, he was like, “Why are you doing that?” Come to find out he was getting at was I wasn't in tune with what I was experiencing. Instead I was telling myself what I needed to experience. I had spent years telling myself what I needed to be. I was doing intentional things, rather than just being open to what was happening. So now I've turned to more of a connoisseur and to laugh at myself when doing at all these things we're discussing. I have done everything on this list--I have experienced in some form. And there are like eight things that this morning quite triggered about a ticket sale issue with Vivid seats.
How do you think you got to that point? How did you go from getting triggered to getting to a point where you can laugh about it?
Being hard on yourself is making your situation seem worse than it is--it's not that bad. But if you're hard on yourself about it, it's going to seem a lot worse, it's going to make you react worse. And it's caused this whole cascade of thing. So basically pull your head out and realize, actually things are okay. I observe my life. Look at all the things I have that are going well. If I'm sitting there pounding the table about all the things that I'm upset about, instead of saying, “Well, okay, where's the fixable parts of this situation?” And if there are none, then be like, “Oh, well, isn't that crazy,” and move on.
When we have a fight or flight response regularly, I don't consider correcting that to be necessarily healing. When we use mindfulness to move through trauma, memories, and emotions healthily, we've healed that trauma. I look at the fight or flight a little bit differently. I consider it to be a process of reconditioning our sympathetic nervous system. Our nervous system gets conditioned to respond in a certain way to certain situations over time. And what you can do with mindfulness is to unconditional that response. This is showed to work in research studies. This can take the form of simply noticing every time your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered in that situation. And then using exercises at that moment to soothe your sympathetic nervous system and move you out of that fight or flight mode. When you dedicate yourself to this, you will retrain your gut not to become triggered. That process to me is a little bit different than healing from trauma.
What is an example of the exercises you use to recondition?
One is breathing exercises. Another, take five minutes to think of four things that bring you feelings of stability. So maybe there's a relationship that brings you feelings of stability, maybe your house your home brings you feelings of stability, maybe your job. Take five minutes to consider those. And then the affirmations. I've found affirmations to be really helpful for calming your sympathetic nervous system. I invited you to take note of five of these triggers. What I'd like you to do is consider those triggers, and I'm going to say a few affirmations and consider if any of these affirmations would be a good way to address one of those triggers. If not, maybe you could create your own affirmation to address that certain trigger.
· I ease into change, because I'm rooted in stability.
· I am always safe to experience my emotions, no matter the intensity.
· I define my integrity, not other people.
· I am supported and safe even though I am afraid.
· My stability is stronger than my disruption or turmoil.
I have had mantras at certain points in my life. But whenever I have read things like mantras, I scoff at them. I'm kind of like, come on. I was the same way with metta practice. When I first started, I was like, “This is ridiculous. I don't need this.” How would you help somebody who is super skeptical.
Soothing your sympathetic nervous system is an art, not a science. You have to try different things and see what works best for you. If you decide to try using affirmations to soothe your sympathetic nervous system, the affirmation must include the exact principle that is triggering you. Take the example, worried your dreams aren't going to come true. There are lots of different reasons why someone might be worried that their dreams aren't going to come true. But what if your reason had to do with timing, such as, a dream that I have to build this house needs to happen at this certain time. So that affirmation needs to include something about the timing for it to work. You might say, “My dreams will become a reality in the perfect amount of time.” And so that's what I would say, is just try it and see how the affirmation affects you on a physical level. If the affirmations aren't working, then you need to try a different approach. You might try some breathing techniques. Or you might try the four for five that I mentioned, think of four aspects of your life that bring you stability for five minutes.
My only real goal is to build a home. I do get hung up on the timeline and the housing market and things and it is very stressful. So I'm going to do a little experiment where I'm going to try that affirmation because I'm very skeptical about affirmations. But I want to give it a good honest try.
One for me is I get triggered by feeling like I'm going to fail. That's a big one for me. And so my affirmation that I use to address that is, “It doesn't matter if I fail or succeed. What matters is that I love myself no matter what.” When I say this affirmation, I feel my gut relax. It has such a physical effect. I was not a fan of affirmations for years. Especially because I'm steeped in mindfulness. Affirmations and mindfulness are contradictory. It's natural for us to want to shy away from that type of practice. But when it comes to fight or flight triggers, I have had so much personal experience and with my students and my clients--affirmations have helped them soothe that experience.
This is a really important episode. A lot of the information we go over in this episode could be beneficial to a lot of people. I'd like to ask our listeners to go through their phone contacts and think of one person who would benefit from the content of this episode, and please share this episode with them. Thanks.