Below, Lisa Gumieniuk, mental health expert and practitioner talks us through how the 3 F’s, fight, flight and freeze exist in today’s modern society and how our brain and nervous system respond to it with the aim to keep us safe.
The background of FFF
When we experience, hear or watch something negative and something that brings about fear or worry, a part of our brain called the limbic system takes over. The limbic system is the emotional centre of the brain and is made up of two main components, the amygdala, the emotions processor and the hippocampus, the memory storer.
When we watch or experience something stressful, these crucial parts of our brain’s job is to try and process them and keep ourselves out of trouble and safe. When we have an overload, they can become stuck, and our bodies will produce certain bodily sensations and particular feelings.
Similarly, the nervous system comes into play in these stressful instances too, in particular, the autonomic system. As the name states, the function of this system is to process and manage the automatic functions that our body undertakes on a day-to-day basis to survive such as breathing, digestion and fighting off nasties in the immune system. The parasympathetic part of the autonomic system aims to prevent the body from overworking in these stressful situations, aiming to restore the body to a calm and composed state. It is often said that when the parasympathetic system is in full swing, where our body is functioning naturally and regenerating, we are ‘in flow’, being relaxed and calm.
In comparison, when something is experienced, heard or seen that causes stress to our brain, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and becomes activated, putting ourselves into a fight, flight or freeze (FFF) mode.
What is ‘fight, flight and freeze’?
What exactly is this? A very simple way to think about it is to ask yourself, ‘What would I do if a tiger appeared in front of me?’ Would you stay and fight? Would you take flight and run away? Or would you completely freeze up?
FFF is our body’s natural response to fear and to take on overwhelm. It is independent of what would happen based on the person and the situation at hand, but all of these responses occur due to heightened emotions and sensations and lead to a sense of overwhelm.
The tiger in modern society today has been replaced with modern experiences. It might be a car horn beeping; we might be afraid of consequences at work or an argument with a loved one. And in the past year or so, we are collectively also dealing with an unprecedented global pandemic that has caused mass confusion, worry and fear resulting in major FFF.
A huge modern ‘tiger’ that everyone will understand daily are visual and sound phone notifications. Every single time your phone buzzes or lights up, it puts you in the FFF, wondering what it is or who it is, placing your senses and body constantly on edge and aware.
All of these instances put us in a consistent overload of triggers, in the long term not being great for us, taking us out of the rest and digest flow more often than not, acting more in the sympathetic system and not the parasympathetic system.
This is where chronic illness and disease so often begins. Stress and overwhelm has such powerful control over how our body functions and causes our automatic rest and digest to be severely impacted. On a very high level, this is how chronic ailments like IBS, autoimmune diseases and anxiety really does begin. So often the first question that is asked when experiencing these kinds of symptoms is… ‘are you experiencing stress?’ Stress doesn’t have to be diagnosed anxiety, but as seen above can occur on a day-to-day basis without you even knowing. Our minds and bodies are overloaded, and our memory storer and emotion processors of the amygdala and the hippocampus are completely overstored, causing physical and mental stresses.
So how can we try to simply reduce stress straight away?
Lisa suggests step one be to turn off your phone notifications. Whether you start with just a few social media apps, or you choose to do everything, this will really reduce your alertness and daily stresses right away. Better yet detox from social media! Take hours or if you can, days off social media to really clear your mind and reset how you feel. We are influenced everyday by other people and their lives. Be aware of your own.
Next Lisa suggests putting a large priority on spending time outside. Getting fresh air and Vitamin D is one of the best mood boosters in the world. Best of all it is free and everyone can do it! Even just 10 minutes in the sun and getting some steps each day can do you a world of good.
Lastly, have things you do that you know relax you. Whether that be getting a coffee with a friend, walking your dog, taking a bath, or reading – do it as much as you can and without distraction.
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