This is part of the Taming the Monkey series

As far as our body and mind are concerned, things get really simple when anxiety shifts our brains to survival mode, but as counterintuitive as it may sound, this automatic response creates a complicated situation, especially for those of us who deal with anxiety regularly.

Survival mode is commonly referred to as “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”. It’s the oldest part of the human brain, designed to keep us alive by any means necessary. When it is triggered, a series of events are triggered both psychologically (the brain) and physiologically (the body). The hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol are released. Adrenaline and norepinephrine trigger an increase in glucose production, causing a boost of energy. Your heart rate elevates, and bronchial dilation expands your lungs to take in more oxygen.

Cortisol is released to suppress hunger, digestion, and immune responses in preparation to fight if necessary. The autonomic nervous system redirects blood from your skin and digestive system into your extremities to temporarily increase strength and make it possible to escape danger (flight).

When we are in survival mode, someone really interesting also happens with our eyes. Our pupils dilate, and our field of vision actually narrows to focus on whatever is right in front of us. We are literally incapable of seeing the big picture – a real life “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation.

No matter how evolved we become as humans, we can only function in one of two modes at a time. We are either in survival or critical thinking mode. When we are in survival mode, we are literally not capable of using critical thinking and reasoning skills. The longer we stay in survival mode, the more irrational, impulsive, and illogical our behavior is likely to become. This is because sustained activation of this part of our brain depletes stored fat and glycogen and runs out our energy reserve.

There are ways to break out of this survival mode, starting with the B in our BRAKES analogy, BREATHING. Next, we will take a look at breathing techniques we can use to calm our mind and body and ease out of survival mode, into a more relaxed state of being.