How to switch off your stress response | Sarah Woodhouse

How to switch off your stress response

In very real ways we’re all being pushed into survival mode at the moment. When I say survival mode I mean the protective fight, flight, freeze response. Our bodies respond like this when we perceive a threat to help ensure we can protect ourselves if we need to. Understanding when and how this response is activated, when it becomes a problem and how to heal if it does cause issues is my life’s work. To put it simply, the fight flight freeze response can become problematic if it’s also coupled with extreme overwhelm (i.e., if the threat is perceived as, or actually is, too big for us to handle). The perceived threat plus the extreme overwhelm can lead to a damaging sense of powerlessness, and when the three occur together we consider the reaction to be traumatic.

To put it simply, the fight flight freeze response can become problematic if it’s also coupled with extreme overwhelm

I read a blog the other day expounding the benefits of low-level anxiety. The writer was trying to highlight that our survival response – which is accompanied by a flood of adrenaline and therefore often coupled with some form of anxiety – is useful, up to a point. She actually didn’t explain it that way, she just kept talking about how useful anxiety and adrenaline is, but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and applying a theory post-hoc. This article didn’t sit well with me. I kept mulling it over during the day because low-level anxiety is never beneficial. It’s never something we should promote. The article cheerleading anxiety prompted me to write this.

As I’ve said, we’re all being pushed into survival mode at the moment. There are many perceived threats, which taken together are likely to cause people to feel overwhelmed and powerless. At a low-level this is ok, but in the extreme or if prolonged over months, this response will cause damage. One day this will all be over and when it is I don’t want to look around and see a world full of deeply traumatised people. I desperately, desperately don’t want this. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is for me, and everyone else working in trauma, to keep reminding you how to control your fear-led reactions.

As I’ve said, we’re all being pushed into survival mode at the moment. There are many perceived threats, which taken together are likely to cause people to feel overwhelmed and powerless. At a low-level this is ok, but in the extreme or if prolonged over months, this response will cause damage. One day this will all be over and when it is I don’t want to look around and see a world full of deeply traumatised people. I desperately, desperately don’t want this. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen is for me, and everyone else working in trauma, to keep reminding you how to control your fear-led reactions.

The answer isn’t to live permanently within low-level anxiety. The answer is to recognise when your fear, overwhelm or past trauma has been triggered, provide yourself with the loving reassurance you need and then release tension from your body

I don’t want to go into lots of detail because I don’t want to add overwhelm to overwhelm. Remembering these two techniques is enough…

1 If your fear or overwhelm is triggered, parent yourself, love yourself, reassure yourself. You have a choice about whether to dive into negative thinking and panic, or whether in the moment you try to shift gently out of it. Lovingly accept and observe your fear and overwhelm, and then say to yourself, as you would to a child, everything will be ok, I’ve got you. Affirmations (e.g., I am safe, I am grounded, I am healing) work so well, as does observing the negative thinking/worry and then re-focusing on the breath, the heart chakra or root chakra. You may need to do this 200 times a day – that’s ok, do it as often as you need.

2 When you realise your stress response has been activated, try to gently release tension from your body, and help it return to a calm state of rest (i.e. return to your Parasympathetic Nervous System). This technique encourages you to prioritise switching off the fight, flight, freeze response. Polyvagal breathing (i.e., belly breathing, ensuring the exhale is longer than the inhale), yoga, meditation, mindful walking, being in nature, mindfulness and healing visualisations tend to work well. Again, you may need to do this 200 times a day – that’s ok, do it as often as your body needs you to.

If you can’t do this for yourself call someone who can help. Someone who is loving and reassuring, and can say to you – everything will be ok, I’ve got you. Someone who is grounded and calm, and can therefore help you regulate. Please get in touch over email if you need any more information about the two techniques I’ve mentioned. With love.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Sarah Woodhouse is a trauma expert, research psychologist and writer who delivers people the knowledge and tools to recognise and overcome self-defeating cycles, to achieve personal freedom and success.

get un-stuck

Join our mailing list to get free articles and resources to help you be free from your trauma. It’s time.