Is there a way to change our “fight or flight” responses to stress? Dr. Philip Hemphill, the Director of Pine Grove’s Professional Enhancement Program, answered this question at Morningside Recovery during his lecture “Stress Less, Live Longer”. He went in-depth about the psychological reasons people experience stress, and how individuals can reduce stress by making lifestyle changes, learning relaxation techniques, and being assertive.
Reasons for Stress
Increased workloads, inability to balance obligations, and conflict with others are just a few of the reasons people experience stress. Stress can be helpful for meeting deadlines and surviving dangerous situations, but can also become extremely unhealthy if stress becomes chronic.
The Consequences of the Fight or Flight Response
Instead of dealing with the stressful situation head-on, many people react to fear and conflict with aggression or avoidance. Dr. Hemphill attributes this reaction partly to a “fight or flight” response.
“We are biologically prepared with an automatic response to danger,” Hemphill explains.
A person’s life experience and beliefs also play a large role. Many women are taught from a young age to act polite and passive in stressful situations, while many men are taught to act aggressive during conflicts. Both reactions can lead to increased levels of stress and destructive behavior like substance abuse.
Stress can also lead to sleep problems, poor eating habits, depression, anxiety, anger, and even heart disease. Although some stress is unavoidable, people do have the power to change how they react to it.
The Relaxation Response
Dr. Herbert Benson, MD, popularized the Relaxation Response as an effective tool for handling stress. The relaxation response is an actual physiological change that the body produces. Heart rate and pulse decrease, muscles relax, and even brain waves have the potential to change. Because the Relaxation Response counteracts the physiological effects of stress, it is essentially the opposite of the “fight or flight” response. Practicing progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, breathing techniques, meditation, and yoga can have incredible calming effects.
Dr. Hemphill guided the group in Diaphragmatic Breathing as a technique to relax during high-stress situations. He directed everyone to sit up straight and place their hand on their abdomen. Then he instructed the group to inhale for a count of four, hold for seven, and exhale for eight seconds. The key is to breathe with the abdomen instead of breathing with the chest.
Finding an effective relaxation technique, like diaphragmatic breathing, is essential for staying calm in the moment. Exercise, healthy eating habits, drinking plenty of water, and getting enough sleep are also important for decreasing stress and improving overall health.
Dr. Hemphill also discussed how being assertive can help people reduce stress in the workplace and in personal relationships. Fear of hurting or offending others, fear of rejection or embarrassment, and believing that others wants, need, or opinions are more important, are obstacles to assertiveness.
Being assertive is an active way to deal with the “fight or flight” response. When someone is assertive, they are not avoiding the situation or acting aggressively. They are expressing their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a direct and honest way. Assertiveness isn’t a personality trait; it’s a behavior that takes practice.
When expressing feelings, try making “I” statements instead of “you” statements.
Dr. Hemphill gave these examples:
Incorrect: “You always interrupt my stories!”
Correct: “I would like to tell my story without being interrupted”
Incorrect: “He makes me angry”
Correct: “I get angry when he breaks promises”
“I” messages are effective because they help people clearly express their feelings and resolve conflict.
Active listening is also essential to becoming an assertive person. Remain present in the moment and focus on what other people are saying, including their body language and facial expressions.
Staying present and practicing mindfulness are the most important things a person can do to stay calm in a conflict, or any other stressful situation. With practice and courage, people really do have the power to face fears, stress less, and live better.
Mental Health Treatment at Morningside Recovery
In addition to hosting comprehensive addiction treatment programs, Morningside Recovery offers mental health treatment for those suffering from mental health disorders. In our dual diagnosis programs, we help clients understand their stress responses and triggers to get to the root of their problems. Our programs include:
- Anxiety treatment
- Bipolar disorder treatment
- Depression treatment
- Personality disorder treatment
- PTSD treatment
Our trained professionals are ready to help you work through anything you’re struggling with. Don’t let your “fight or flight” response steer you away from getting help. Call Morningside Recovery today at 855-631-2135 to get the help you need.