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Anxiety: Fight, Flight, and False Alarms

The prevalence of anxiety in our culture has increased dramatically in recent years.  One article that I read stated that the average high school student today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950’s.  Anxiety is a complex issue, but a simple metaphor that many people find helpful are the ideas of an “alarm system” and “false alarms”.

We all have a built-in alarm system that is meant to help us when we are in physical danger.  

If we’re hiking in the forest, and we suddenly see a bear ahead of us on the trail, our alarm system goes off; “Danger! Danger!”.  We go into “fight or flight” mode: our bodies gear up for action, our heart starts beating faster, and we go into high alert to identify threats. This alarm system is important; it can keep us alive when we encounter a real threat to our physical safety!

The problem with our alarm system is that it is not very smart.

It can sometimes be trigged by any perceived threat, physical or otherwise.  For example, our alarm system could be triggered because we’re having a disagreement with a family member, or because someone cuts us off in traffic, or because of any other stressor that we might experience in our day-to-day lives. While these stressors are real, they don’t actually pose a physical threat, so they are “false alarms” that can be quite unhelpful because they put our bodies and minds into fight or flight mode. While it is quite helpful to switch into fight or flight mode if we encounter a bear on the trail, it is definitely not helpful to switch into fight or flight mode if we’re having a disagreement with a family member, or if someone cuts us off in traffic. There are many things in our fast-paced, stressful society that can set off our alarm systems very easily, so people in our culture spend much of their waking hours with their alarm systems going off to some degree, and they are constantly being pulled into fight or flight mode.  Also, some people have particularly sensitive alarm systems that seem to be triggered more often.  Sometimes that’s just the way that they are naturally wired, and other times it’s because they have experienced some trauma in their lives.

The good news is that you can learn to recognize false alarms, and “turn down” your alarm system when it is being unhelpful. 

 When you turn down your alarm system, your worry and anxiety levels go down, and you can begin to think clearly in helpful and productive ways.  When I work with clients who struggle with stress or anxiety, one of the first things we do together are some techniques and exercises that teach them to turn down their alarm system.  This alone can help them experience less worry and anxiety in their day-to-lives, but it also allows them to think more clearly and begin to notice and restructure unhelpful thinking patterns that can trigger and exacerbate their alarm system.

If you’re experiencing stress, worry, or anxiety and you’d like to speak to a counsellor about it, please contact us at Sojourn Counselling and Neurofeedback or make an appointment online; we would love to help!

About the author: Eli Norman is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who works with teenagers, adults, and couples from our office in North Vancouver.

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