10 Surprising Things That Trigger "Fight or Flight"
Story by Lissa Rankin, M.D.
You know that when you’re getting chased by a tiger, you’re almost in a car accident, your “to do” list is overflowing, and you’re burning the candle at both ends, your body’s “fight-or-flight” stress responses are going to get triggered. But you might not know what else will trigger stress responses in your body, and it’s important that you do!
As I explain in Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself, the body has natural self-repair mechanisms that can fight cancer, prevent infection, repair broken proteins, protect your coronary arteries, and retard aging. But whenever the nervous system is in “fight-or-flight,” the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms are disabled.
The amygdala in your primordial limbic brain is your danger alert signal, and it hasn’t evolved to keep up with modern-day society, so your amygdala can’t tell the difference between dangers that threaten life and limb and perceived dangers, which are merely thoughts, feelings, or beliefs in your mind. As a result, your amygdala may be sabotaging your health, and you may not even know it.
So how can you avoid winding up in chronic repetitive stress responses? Here are some surprising “fight-or-fight” triggers to avoid.
1. Feelings of Loneliness
As a species, we are tribal people, so from a survival perspective, being alone too much can signal the amygdala to trigger stress responses. Makes sense, right? If we’re dependent on the tribe to keep us safe, forebrain feelings of loneliness can activate the amygdala’s danger signal. Scientific evidence suggests that people who are part of a supportive community have half the rate of heart disease when compared to lonely people, and this may explain why.
If you feel hungry, the message you’re sending your danger-seeking amygdala is “Houston, we have a problem! There’s not enough food!” Of course, your fridge is full of food and maybe you are 50 pounds overweight and hungry because you’re trying to diet. But your amygdala is not smart. It can’t tell the difference. So boom—you’re in stress response and your self-repair mechanisms are flipped off.
3. Selling Your Soul for a Paycheck
You know that your job can be stressful. But it’s not so much being busy or working hard that will trigger your “fight-or-flight.” Sure, even a job you love can stress you out. But you’re much more likely to wind up in chronic repetitive stress response when your integrity is on the line.
4. A Pessimistic Worldview
If you are a glass-half-empty kind of person, your forebrain is communicating all kinds of scary messages to your amygdala on a regular basis—thoughts like “There’s not enough money,” “Nothing ever goes my way,” “Nobody really loves me,” and other Eeyore sorts of thoughts that stimulate stress responses in the body. In fact, optimists have a 77 percent lower risk of heart disease than pessimists, and this is probably why.
5. Toxic Relationships
While loving relationships and a supportive community are calming to the amygdala and healthy for the body, you ar better off being alone than being in the company of people who stress out your nervous system. When you feel threatened in a relationship—not just physically, but emotionally—your nervous system interprets that as danger.
6. Worry Wart Thoughts
Anxious, worried thoughts make the amygdala go ballistic. If you’re filling your brain with worried thoughts about the kids, the state of affairs in politics, whether or not your lover is going to break your heart, or how quickly the glaciers are going to melt, you are certain to trigger stress responses.
7. Childhood Traumas
You know those old childhood traumas that stick around if we don’t heal them? Subconscious thoughts arising from old traumas may be triggering your amygdala when you don’t even realize it. Triggers such as places, scents, songs or other sounds that remind you of the trauma may trigger “fight-or-flight,” even if you are completely unaware that it’s happening.
8. Unforgiven Resentments
When you harbor resentments—against your ex, your mother, your boss, whomever—you give your amygdala fuel. Resentful thoughts are interpreted by the amygdala just like thoughts of food scarcity or a tiger on the loose.
It’s not just rage that will flip you into “fight-or-flight.” Even thoughts like “Someone just spilled red wine on my white carpet” can trigger your limbic system.
10. Feelings of Helplessness
The amygdala likes to feel in control, after all, it’s the amygdala’s job to protect you from danger! So feelings of helplessness can land you in “fight-or-flight.”
If reading this list sends you into “fight-or-flight” just because you’re feeling all 10 of these things right now, don’t despair. This is where you get to be proactive! Awareness is key. Once you start to cultivate awareness of what triggers your own stress responses, you can be mindful about how you tend the garden of your mind so you can keep your amygdala calm and keep your self-repair mechanisms doing what they do best—keeping you healthy! For more tips on how to calm your amygdala and optimize your health, download the free Self-Healing Kit at MindOverMedicineBook.com.
Make Your Own Diagnosis & Write Your Own Prescription What might be out of balance in your life? Which health habits might you adopt? What prescription will you write to live a more optimally healthy life?
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online
communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.