Column: Battling the uneasiness of fight or flight

The crickets are chirping softly outside my Westchester office, and my client tells me how sad she is that her 91-year-old grandmother has been hospitalized. Tears stream down her face as she describes the inability of her aunts and uncles to understand how seriously ill her grandmother has been. Both her parents died early and her grandmother is like a mother to her. Volper

At the hospital, she was the only family member to speak with the doctors, nurses, social workers and staff. She felt abandoned by her family and alone in trying to make the necessary decisions for her grandmother. At one point, the staff brought in a ventilator to assist her grandmother’s breathing and she finally felt the full impact of her grandmother’s physical health.

One morning, she allowed herself the “luxury” of leaving the hospital to find a restaurant. Sitting in her car she felt frantic and isolated. While using her GPS she called her cousin for support, even though she knew it was dangerous to be driving under these circumstances.

I suggested to my client, that her nervous system was on overload and that she was in “fight” mode. When we feel threatened, our nervous systems go into a “fight or flight” mode in response to our fears. When both the “fight and flight” modes are operating together we can become “frozen.” This may then lead us to feel depressed, or even hopeless.

For example, veterans and others who experience catastrophic events may develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, as a result of their nervous systems shutting down in this state of extreme trauma.

While PTSD is the extreme response to catastrophic trauma, all of us experience trauma in our everyday lives. Our nervous systems ramp up when we are feeling threatened; our hearts may race, our hands may become clammy, our breath may become shallow or a sense of lethargy may emerge. In the “flight” mode, we avoid doing tasks that we need to do most.

However, we all have the innate ability to calm and restore our nervous systems to a state of equilibrium. The problem is that most of us don’t realize that our bodies can be a source to help us to feel better.

That is why I suggested to my client that we try two exercises that she could use to calm herself.  I suggested that she imagine, either a person, place or thing that brings comfort to her. Her place of comfort she said is a remote beach she visits. As she visualized the scene, she saw high dunes, the seagulls riding the wind and the waves crashing against the shore. I then, asked her to tell me what she was sensing in her body as she envisioned this scene. She reported that she felt her breath slowing down, her chest felt more open and she was feeling more peaceful.

I gently suggested that this was the perfect thought that she could go back to whenever she was feeling threatened or overwhelmed. I also suggested that in these moments, she could also take some deep breaths to calm herself.

So, to apply this exercise to counter your stressful moments, I would recommend that you do the following:  Either alone, or with someone you know well sit quietly. Think about a person, place or thing that brings a sense of ease to your body and mind. You will know you found it when your mind slows down, or your breathing deepens or you feel a sense of ease. Once you find this “resource” you may use this memory to bring your stress levels down. It may take a little practice, but if you find that image in a quiet time you will be able to draw on it in moments of difficulties when you need it most.

Hillary Volper, LCSW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Westchester and New York City. She works with individuals, couples and groups. She is on staff at the Training Institute for Mental health, where she teaches and supervises and sits on their Board of Trustees.
To contact Hillary you can email her at HGVolper@aol.com or go to her website at: www.HillaryVolper.com