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Trauma Responses – Part 2: Flight Response

flight response

Trauma Responses – Part 2: Flight Response

We covered the fight response in the first part of our trauma response series. Now, we will be exploring the flight response and what it entails. 

The flight response is different from the fight response in that people will leave the situation altogether. However, like the fight response, flight can manifest in either healthy or unhealthy ways. 

In healthy circumstances, a flight response can help:

  • Disengage people from toxic conversations or situations
  • Leave unhealthy relationships, whether it’s with a partner or another loved one
  • Remove yourself from any physically threatening situation
  • Be better equipped to assess the danger

However, if you have unresolved trauma, the flight response can be unhealthy in the following ways:

  • Prone to engaging in obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors
  • Having to stay busy constantly 
  • Experiencing panic and fear often
  • Perfectionism and overworking tendencies
  • Not being able to sit still

In essence, these responses are a reaction to outrunning and leaving a perceived danger.

So, What Is a Typical Example of the Flight Response?

If you face various threatening situations, your body will react with a specific survival response. Some of the time, you may respond instinctively. Here’s a prime example of the flight response:  

Let’s say you’ve gone for a hike and see an animal that you don’t want to encounter around the corner. If you have a flight response to this, you will turn around and leave right away, even if you weren’t finished hiking.  

What are some other perceived or actual threats?

Our flight response can be triggered by various perceived or actual threats. They can be both physical and psychological. Here are some scenarios that may trigger a flight response:

Physical Threats

  • Encountering wild animals
  • Experiencing natural disasters
  • Other people 

Psychological Threats

  • Speaking in public 
  • Parties or anxiety-inducing social situations
  • Specific phobias

These days, some threats that usually trigger a flight response are much different than what people went through thousands of years ago. However, your brain will still perceive and respond to “threats” even if they aren’t life-threatening. 

Some other more modern flight responses might be initiated from: 

  • Experiencing continual work stress
  • Financial issues 
  • Arguments with your partner or others

However, it should be noted that many traumatic events in our current age are life-threatening. For example, surviving physical and sexual abuse, a natural disaster, or military combat.

What Triggers the Flight Response?

Some of our body’s hormones act as signals for the autonomic nervous system to have various reactions. Essentially, the autonomic nervous system controls involuntary bodily activities like heart rate and breathing. 

The autonomic nervous system involves both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system will trigger the fight-or-flight response, which gives the body a rush of energy to appropriately respond to any foreseen dangers.

What Is the Sympathetic Nervous System?

When discussing the fight or flight responses, the focus is on the sympathetic nervous system. Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system has “sympathy” for you when you are terrified. As a result, it will increase bodily responses that put you into survival mode. For your body to fight or run from something, your sympathetic nervous system will kick into overdrive by increasing your heart rate and respiration and decreasing digestion.

What Is the Parasympathetic Nervous System?

The parasympathetic nervous system comes into play the perceived threat is gone. During this stage, various changes occur, like a slowed heart rate and respiration. In other words, the body goes back to its state of rest.

What Are the Effects of Repeated Flight Responses?

If you experience flight reactions often, it can turn into chronic stress. Chronic stress can contribute to the following:

  • Poor sleep 
  • Social isolation 
  • Issues with thinking, memory, and concentration
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Heart disease 

How Can You Get Your Body Out of Flight Mode?

If you experience something traumatic or an event that triggers your flight response, there are various techniques and skills that you can access. These coping tools can lower your stress levels before the flight response hits. Here are some methods that can help:

  • Breathing exercises: Breathing is an excellent tool in many different situations when coping with mental health. You can research various breathing exercises online, but inhaling slowly and deeply through the nose and exhaling through your mouth can be beneficial. If you want to take your relaxation one step further, you can use guided imagery that is calming. You can take deep breaths along with these breathing exercises. 
  • Practice Mindfulness and Staying Present: Staying present-minded can help reduce anxiety and depression. It can almost minimize any feelings that come up following a flight response. To practice mindfulness and stay present, center yourself in the present moment, and then focus on your breathing to calm both the mind and body.
  • Grounding: Grounding is a similar concept to mindfulness, which can engage you with a sense of safety by using your senses. You can ground yourself by using the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. This exercise involves identifying five things you can see, four you touch, three you hear, two you smell, and one you can taste. Another way to practice grounding is by focusing on how your feet feel flat on the floor.

Flight Response In Summary

The flight response is your body’s natural reaction to a perceived or real threat. While sometimes this response can be beneficial, it can manifest itself in unhealthy ways. You can become more aware of your flight response being triggered and practice techniques to soothe your mind and body to manage the flight response better. 

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Kaitlen Knowles, Clinical Social Work/Therapist, LCSW (she, her), Rochester, NY

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