5 signs someone is stuck in a constant state of fight or flight (and how you can help them)

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Originating from our ancestors, the “fight or flight” response served a clear evolutionary purpose, preparing the body to either face threats head-on or to high-tail it out of danger. 

As WebMD succinctly puts it, “If your body perceives itself to be in trouble, your system will work to keep you alive.” In essence, it’s our body’s primal, turbo-charged boost for survival.

This response is really really useful if you are being attacked by a lion. 

However, the triggers for this adrenaline-fueled state aren’t just limited to life-or-death scenarios anymore. Modern life, with its deadlines, digital bombardment, and constant pressure, often sends us into this heightened state of alertness, even when we’re not in actual physical danger. 

Basically, it can be like an alarm system that sometimes doesn’t know when to shut off, and being stuck in a constant state of fight or flight isn’t pleasant. 

Today, we dive into five signs that it is the case. 

Recognizing these signs is the first step toward understanding and, ultimately, offering a helping hand. 

And don’t worry; we’ll also arm you with practical tips on how to help someone navigate out of this survival mode and back into a state of calm and control.

Let’s get to it.

1) They avoid things/people/situations that might cause stress 

Ever noticed how some people suddenly avoid potential stressors? 

Maybe they start dodging social gatherings, shying away from certain places, or sidestepping tasks at work that they perceive as challenging. It’s a more common behavior than you might think, and there’s a deeper reason behind it than mere preference.

As highlighted by Simone Saunders, a therapist, in a Huffington Post article, this tendency to avoid potentially stressful interactions or environments isn’t just about being cautious. 

“It’s actually a survival response to avoid people, places, and experiences that are reminiscent of a previous traumatic experience,” Saunders explains. 

This strategy is the nervous system’s way of trying to protect us, steering us clear of anything associated with ‘danger’ and thereby keeping us in a perceived safe zone.

How to help someone with this:

While avoidance might seem like a practical short-term solution, it’s most often not the way forward.

As Choosing Therapy points out, barring specific scenarios (such as avoiding environments that could trigger a relapse in substance abuse), this approach is usually counterproductive. 

In fact, research indicates that those who consistently resort to avoidance as a coping mechanism are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and issues with self-esteem. 

Therefore, it’s crucial to help our loved ones break free from this pattern of avoidance.

While it’s always a good idea to seek professional help, here’s how you can support them in this journey:

  • Identify the root cause: Start by helping them pinpoint the exact source of their stress, assuming they’re not already aware. Understanding what they’re avoiding and why is the first step towards addressing it.
  • Gradually face fears: Encourage them to confront their fears in small, manageable steps. This gradual exposure can help diminish the anxiety associated with specific people, places, or situations.
  • Emphasize control: Remind them of the Stoic principle that focuses on distinguishing between what’s within our control and what’s beyond it. It can be empowering to concentrate on the aspects of life they can influence.

By guiding them to gently confront the things they’ve been avoiding, you can help them build resilience and a healthier coping strategy. It’s about striking a balance, gradually expanding their comfort zone without overwhelming them, and providing a supportive presence throughout the process.

2) They over-react to small things

Picture this: You’re rushing through the airport, trying to make a tight connection.

Your heart’s pounding, palms sweating, and in the frenzy, you accidentally bump into someone. Instead of a quick apology and moving on, you find yourself snapping at them, your response way out of proportion to the minor collision. 

Or imagine you’re at work, already having a tough day, and your computer decides to update right when you’re on a deadline. The frustration builds rapidly, and before you know it, you’re slamming your fist on the desk over a minor inconvenience.

Sound familiar?

Chances are, these overreactions were the aftermath of a stressful event that had you walking on a tightrope, emotionally speaking. For most, this heightened state of irritability fades as the stress dissipates. 

However, for those trapped in a constant fight or flight mode, this might be their everyday reality. They’re perpetually on edge, and even the smallest thing can trigger an exaggerated response, as their system is already primed to perceive threats. 

How to help someone with this:

Assisting someone who’s prone to overreacting due to being in a perpetual state of alert involves fostering a sense of calm and helping them reframe their perception of threats. Here are some approaches that can help:

  • Encourage mindfulness practices: Techniques such as meditation or deep-breathing exercises can help them become more aware of their reactions and learn to pause before responding.
  • Promote positive social interactions: Engaging in positive, stress-free activities with others can help reduce their overall stress levels and improve their reaction to stressors.
  • Suggest professional support: In some cases, talking to a therapist or counselor can provide them with coping strategies to manage their heightened state of alertness more effectively.

3) They always seem tired

Ever have trouble sleeping when you’re in a new environment? Why is that, you might wonder? 

It could very well be your body’s instinctual response to an unfamiliar, and thus perceived dangerous, setting. It’s a fascinating, albeit exhausting, aspect of our built-in survival mechanism.

Sleep disturbances, particularly insomnia, are linked to various anxiety disorders. That is, restless nights, the tossing and turning, aren’t just a nuisance; they’re often deeply entwined with our mental state. 

But it’s not always about the struggle to fall asleep. Many of us might believe we’re getting a decent night’s rest when, in fact, our sleep is anything but deep and restorative. 

How could this be?

Microawakenings— brief, often unnoticed, moments of wakefulness that fragment our sleep. 

As noted by Johann Hari in his bestseller Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, individuals feeling isolated or disconnected might experience these microawakenings. 

Essentially, it’s an ingrained biological response formed at a time when sleeping away from the safety of the group meant real vulnerability to threats.

Those in a perpetual fight-or-flight mode may find themselves in a similar boat

Their bodies, constantly on edge due to perceived threats, opt for lighter, more fragmented sleep as a precautionary measure—a biological imperative to remain on guard. Hence, the may also seem tired.

How to help someone with this:

For those looking to aid a friend or loved one in breaking this cycle, Harvard Health offers some practical advice. Here are a few things you could suggest. 

  • Establish a regular bedtime: Going to bed at the same time each day can help regulate the body’s internal clock and improve the quality of sleep.
  • Limit caffeine intake: Advising them to avoid caffeine at least 8 hours before bedtime can prevent it from interfering with their ability to fall asleep.
  • Promote physical activity: Regular exercise can significantly improve sleep quality, but it’s best done several hours before bedtime to avoid overstimulation.
  • Suggest a pre-sleep routine: A warm bath before bed can relax the body and signal that it’s time to wind down, making it easier to fall asleep.

4) They show excessive worry or fear

Do you know someone who seems to be constantly fretting, caught up in a web of worry that seems excessive or even irrational at times? 

It’s like they’re perpetually on high alert, concerned about their safety, the well-being of others, and the ‘what ifs’ of every situation. 

This state of constant fear is a big sign that someone is stuck in a fight or flight mode. 

How to help someone with this:

Helping someone entangled in excessive worry or fear involves more than just telling them to ‘stop worrying.’ It’s about guiding them through a process that helps mitigate these overwhelming feelings. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Encourage them to express their worries: Sometimes, just the act of sharing worries out loud can help to reduce their intensity. Encourage them to talk about their fears with you or someone they trust.
  • Promote problem-solving: Help them shift from worrying to problem-solving. When they express a concern, guide them to think about possible solutions or steps they can take to address the issue.
  • Introduce relaxation techniques: Teach them relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. These can help calm their nervous system and reduce feelings of anxiety.
  • Suggest professional help: If their worry or fear is significantly impacting their daily life, it might be time to suggest seeking help from a mental health professional who can offer tailored strategies that will help.

5) They rely on substances 

Turning to substances is a common yet “particularly destructive” form of avoidance coping, as highlighted by Choosing Therapy

We all know that it’s a slippery slope where individuals use alcohol, drugs, or prescription medication not just for physical relief but as a crutch to numb emotional pain and stress. 

However, it’s crucial to recognize that substance reliance isn’t limited to these alone; people can also develop unhealthy dependencies on sex, pornography, or food as a way to escape their reality.

How to help someone with this:

When dealing with substance reliance, the approach needs to be one of compassion and support rather than judgment. 

Mind emphasizes the importance of making individuals feel supported, which can significantly impact their journey toward recovery. Here’s how you can help:

  • Be there: Simply being there for them can make a huge difference. Find ways to spend quality time together that don’t revolve around the substance or behavior they’re struggling with.
  • Offer a listening ear: Encourage open conversations where they can share their feelings and struggles without fear of judgment. Just listening can provide them with a sense of relief and understanding.
  • Reassure them about seeking help: Many people feel ashamed or fearful about seeking professional help for addiction. Reassure them that it’s okay to ask for help and that doing so is a sign of strength, not weakness.
  • Help them find professional support: Whether it’s a therapist, a support group, or a rehabilitation program, assist them in finding the right kind of professional help. Offer to help with the research or accompany them to appointments if they’re open to it.

The bottom line 

Helping someone in a constant fight or flight state starts with recognizing the signs, like the behaviors we have covered today. 

Offering support, understanding, and practical guidance can make all the difference in helping someone find their way back to a sense of calm and security, but keep in mind that professionals trained in dealing with such situations are best positioned to help. 

As always, I hope you have found this post valuable. 

Until next time. 

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Mal James

Mal James

Originally from Ireland, Mal is a content writer, entrepreneur, and teacher with a passion for self-development, productivity, relationships, and business.

As an avid reader, Mal delves into a diverse range of genres, expanding his knowledge and honing his writing skills to empower readers to embark on their own transformative journeys.

In his downtime, Mal can be found on the golf course or exploring the beautiful landscapes and diverse culture of Vietnam, where he is now based.

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