Navigating Your "Fight or Flight" Stress Response During Coronavirus

We're well into the second month of shelter-in-place due to coronavirus, adjusting to our new routines and lives. We're are teetering between occasional acute stress and a low-grade, sustained worry that's become familiar. It's normal to have a natural protective response during times like these; in fact, for many of us, our innate "fight/flight/freeze" response is showing up more frequently.

However, what happens when your natural stress response is different from those around you? Maybe you tend to "fight" – take action – and your partner typically "freezes?" What about when your colleague feels "flight" and you feel "fight?"

My clients have brought many similar scenarios into their sessions recently, highlighting how challenging it is to navigate these strong, instinctual responses that can easily lead to conflict. How do we connect when it's so easy to clash?

Here's advice to help gauge your own stress response; activate self-soothing when needed; and remain compassionate and understanding for what those around you are experiencing.

1. Remain aware that we each experience our own response to stress

How you react to the stress from the virus may be different than how your loved ones do. Even those you know really well, like friends, partners, and family members, may be processing in ways that surprise or confuse you.

Considering with compassion that our own reaction may be different than that of those around us is a really powerful tool in working through any interpersonal conflicts that may arise during the quarantine.

2. Teach yourself to understand your own automatic response to stress

Knowing that everyone responds to stress differently can help spark some authentic curiosity and compassion about how your mind and body handle stress.

Common cues to help guide you to this self-discovery are bodily sensations; the feeling that you are speaking without thinking; or what may feel like a bit of a disconnect from your internal conversation.

For example, if you notice that you focus on to-do lists, create action plans for all possible scenarios, or feel very compelled to engage your partner in a strategic discussion, your natural stress response might be in the "fight" area.

If this is the case, you may also notice muscle tension, a change in your body temperature, adrenaline, increased energy. These are all ways you can begin to learn about the way your body and your mind try to take care of you during these moments.

3. Activate your natural soothing system

Our body's natural calming system (the parasympathetic nervous system) may not be as active as we want it to be.

To engage with this system, one of the most impactful things we can do, especially when trying to calm ourselves in a short period of time, is to work with our breath.

Two ways to use our breath to activate our natural soothing system include:

Both have been shown to be effective in helping achieve calm.  

4. Ask yourself what you need to help take care of your needs in the moment

If you are in a space of "freeze", what would help you feel safe to come out of that? What can you do for yourself? What can your partner do that would be helpful?

5. Approach conversations about different responses with curiosity

Challenge yourself to express your feelings clearly and directly – and offer your partner the same opportunity. Remain open about your partner's stress response.

Feel empowered to express what's happening for you in these moments of stress, and to explain what you've noticed about your response system.

Opening up to the compassionate mindset of caring for ourselves and others in moments of stress while acknowledging our natural protective instincts can create an environment that facilitates connection instead of conflict.