You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response ― an evolutionary mechanism that allows us to enter a survival state in the presence of physical or psychological threats. And while the response can be critical in how we deal with stress, you may have also noticed occasions when your heart raced, you felt flushed or you were on high alert, even if you weren’t in any immediate danger.
The truth is that your fight-or-flight response can kick in anytime, even when the only threats around are imaginary, Simone Saunders, a trauma therapist and founder of the Cognitive Corner, a group psychological practice, told HuffPost. This usually occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event, whether they know it or not.
“I always like to use the analogy that our amygdala, or emotion center of the brain, is similar to a smoke detector, in that it can’t tell the difference between real or perceived danger,” Saunders said. “Whether you burn your food or your house is on fire, the smoke detector goes off either way.”
Your flight-or-flight mode is activated by the sympathetic nervous system, which responds to stress triggers by increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and concentration. In theory, this is good ― it’s meant to force you into action in order to temporarily protect or prepare yourself for something bad. But sometimes, that can go haywire. Exposure to stressful situations may be perceived by your brain and body as intense, repetitive and prolonged, locking into you a fight-or-flight state that may linger for days, months or even years.
“Your nervous system collects data throughout your life about what people, places or experiences have been threatening in some capacity,” Saunders said. “So, when you have an encounter that is reminiscent of those previous experiences, the smoke detector, or fight-or-flight response, goes off, letting you know that something about this encounter feels unsafe.”
Acute traumatic events, like accidents, natural disasters, school violence, war experiences or the sudden loss of a loved one, can cause the body and mind to react. For example, if you’re in a car accident, you might then have flashbacks about the event, avoid getting into cars, or experience physical and mental fight-or-flight symptoms like trembling and racing thoughts ― even when you’re not near a vehicle. Chronic and ongoing stressors, including prejudice, community violence and financial insecurity, can also put you in this state.
After a while of prolonged exposure to stress, you might not notice you’re living in a constant state of fight or flight because the reaction has become habitual. We asked experts about signs that your mind and body have not returned to their normal, resting state.
You’re emotionally numb
When stress is chronic, the body’s response system becomes overwhelmed, causing a collapse that may leave you feeling numb to everything. This emotional bluntedness can make you feel like you’re on autopilot or disconnected from yourself and others.
You might not be able to respond to emotions, which can lead to forgetfulness, difficulty focusing, fatigue, hopelessness, sense of shame, and engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
“Chronic exposure, or repeated trauma and continued exposure to danger, places individuals in a chronic state of trauma [and] severely compromises their recovery,” Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, a professor at Georgetown University’s department of psychiatry, told HuffPost. “Physical effects, or injuries attained from traumatic experiences, become constant reminders [and] may also impede recovery.”
You’re always tired, but can’t rest
A common symptom of prolonged stress is hypervigilance, which keeps the mind and body alert and in survival mode to protect themselves. Sleep disturbances and muscle tension can be caused by biological changes. Other sleep problems can include nightmares, early waking, restless sleep and difficulty falling asleep.
“Chronic exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone in the body, can put us in a constant state of hyperawareness to our surroundings caused by the fight-or-flight response, which is inherently exhausting for the body,” Saunders said. “However, this can extend to our periods of rest, where it’s necessary for our nervous system to be in a calm state in order to achieve restful sleep.”
You have lapses in memory
Prolonged periods of fight or flight can increase the release of stress hormones in brain regions that involve memory. In order to survive, the brain distances itself from traumatic events or stressful situations, an effect known as dissociation.
Dissociation can create a disconnect in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions and identity. It can be a result of severe stress or trauma, causing the brain to protect itself by distorting perceptions of time, space and identity.
Since stress can lead to functional and structural changes in the brain, high levels of stress can also cause a reduction in memory.
“During this process, the cohesive narrative of the traumatic event may be lost, but our brain stores information about the event in other ways, such as remembering scents, taste, sounds, physical sensations and/or some visuals,” Saunders said.
Repressed memories occur when trauma is too severe to be stored in the conscious memory. However, elements of an event in our memory can be restored, or triggered.
“Because the cohesive narrative is typically not stored, and goes unprocessed, we may notice ourselves getting triggered by seemingly unrelated things — the smell of a fragrance, the taste of a certain beverage, a disapproving facial expression,” Saunders said.
You’re reactive in situations where you normally aren’t
While chronic stress can cause emotional bluntness, a chronic state of fight or flight can also lead to volatility. After facing stressful situations, it can be difficult to regulate emotions such as anger, sadness and shame.
For example, you might be anxious in the wake of a traumatic event and not realize the anxiety is carrying over into situations that involve other stressors. Maybe a small inconvenience makes you burst into anger. Feelings of anger are normal, but misplaced anger can be a sign you’re already in a chronically stressed state.
Since emotions like anger, anxiety and fear trigger the fight-or-flight response, the body can react almost immediately, even in situations where you’ve misplaced your feelings.
After a traumatic experience, Dass-Brailsford said, how a person might cope with stressors depends on a multitude of factors, including intensity, chronicity, pre-existing disorders and physical effects, personality and cognitive style.
“Because some people display reactions externally and others internally, factors which shape reactions are many,” Dass-Brailsford said. “The more intense and prolonged the trauma, the more damaging its effects.”
You’re avoiding or engaging in situations that might cause stress
If you’re stuck in survival mode, you may try to keep away from circumstances that might cause stress, including people, places and situations that can prompt certain emotions and memories.
“It’s actually a survival response to avoid people, places, and experiences that are reminiscent of a previous traumatic experience,” Saunders said. “The nervous system attempts to keep us safer by utilizing avoidance.”
However, some people choose to surround themselves with similar stressors.
“This can also work the opposite way as well,” Saunders said. “Sometimes, we can also gravitate towards situations that are triggering as a subconscious way to try to control and overcome previous similar traumas.”
Whether it’s avoiding stressful situations or engaging in them, trying to gain control and staying clear of memories that remind you of previous experiences are both ways of keeping yourself in survival mode.
How to calm your fight-or-flight response
Some stress can be healthy, contributing to resilience and cognitive benefits. However, that’s only the case with low to moderate levels of stress.
Too much stress can send messages to the brain that a traumatic stressor is still present, putting you in a state of fight or flight. But there are ways to unlearn triggers that automatically respond to stress. Dass-Brailsford cited “psychotherapy, medications and coping skills, such as relaxation, exercise, and social support.”
Eliminating chronic stress can be difficult. Listening to your body, and making time to process your emotions, are important in coping.
Physical ways to ensure you’re taking care of yourself include exercising, eating regularly and getting enough sleep. Positive social support can also help with stress and help protect you against trauma.
Most of all, it’s important to recognize when you need help, which can mean getting support from available resources.