Round table: Fight or Flight and False Alarms

A conversation between Chris, Sam, Anne, and Judy

Our fight-or-flight response, and the fear that accompanies it, is designed to protect us from harm, but what happens when this response is triggered by an imagined threat?

Fear and the fight/flight response was the topic at our most recent round table discussion, where we shared our thoughts about the many ways we are exposed to threats – both real and imagined – and the anxiety this can create in everyday life.

Judy commented that since 9/11, we have lived in a militarized atmosphere of heightened anxiety and fear. Others mentioned that our media often reinforces this fear state by continuously broadcasting recurring images of chaos and violence, and this level of exposure drives the anxiety even higher. We all agreed that we can become inundated with these messages of fear from our TVs, radios, computers, mobile devices, and social media, without even realizing the effects. Chris added that this could contribute to a distorted perception of reality and thus create a hyper-vigilant atmosphere.

This reminded us of the parallel to working with clients who experience an excessive amount of fear and anxiety in their daily lives. When we are dealing with overwhelming anxiety, we can easily fall into catastrophic thinking and become even more anxious about what we imagine is going to happen next.

It wasn’t hard for all of us to be reminded of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the media frenzy around the few cases in the US. Although it is true that Ebola is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, a lack of balance in reporting has led people to be afraid who are at a very low risk of catching this disease. This kind of fear has the potential to expand to include all infections, as well as other tragic events in the news, and a sense of personal helplessness can set in.

We thought of ways each of us deals with anxiety and treats it in our therapy practices, both with clients and within ourselves. Anne commented that having a safe space to work skillfully with fear and feelings that may be underneath it is work that has to proceed carefully in order to avoid increasing a client’s anxiety. Techniques such as orienting to the present moment experience, including reconnecting with one’s current surroundings, can alleviate anxiety because it shifts focus from a frightening imagined future or a painful traumatic past to the calm and safety of the therapy room.

Chris commented that we can’t be in fear and gratitude at the same time, so reminding
ourselves of what we’re grateful for can change our emotional state dramatically. We ended by noting how refreshing it felt to talk about ways we can avoid getting swept up in fear and agreed that there are things we can all do to help ourselves deal with the changes around and within us.