A CBT look at Fight or Flight, when the tail wags the dog…

Do you have anxiety?
Does your physiological response to ‘stress’ rule your life?

So, modern evidence based psychotherapy and neuroscience tells us that when stress becomes a disorder, it causes a shift in thinking, and we develop distorted and negative bad thinking habits, which cause inappropriate emotional and physical and behavioural responses to everyday life.


Click to open a window to the Fight or Flight info post.

What is not so well known, is that when stress is chronic and becomes a disorder, (especially in children), it often literally causes a shift in ‘feeling’ – by literally restructuring the brain, so that there are miscommunications with the brain triggering the nervous system – creating TOO STRONG a connection between the Hippocampus and the Amygdala, which together identify threats and turn on the threat response (fight or flight) – and WEAKENS the connection between the Hippocampus and the Prefrontal Cortex, which evaluates situations in a rational way and has an appropriate response to life and knows there is no need to pump up with fight or flight.

Fight or flight is our body’s primal response to anything we perceive a threat or hazard or danger, it is an immediate release of hormones to pump up our body to fight or run from a threat, perceived or real. Click the tiger for full info.


‘Conditioning’ – the brain and the nervous system: When this happens we may develop a general anxiety disorder – as the Amygdala is part of the ‘fear conditioning’ system that stores emotional memories and responses – and without giving it much thought, you develop a pattern of approaching many situations as threats that require you to be in a state of fight or flight inappropriately, (since your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have time to do the ‘much thought’ bit by evaluating that actually it’s okay and there’s no need to pump up the body for a danger or hazard). This means the your brain is triggering your nervous system to simmer in and out of an overload of adrenaline and oxygen and cortisol in a low to moderate way during your day (the extreme fight or flight crescendo is an actual panic attack) without you even knowing. It quickly becomes normalised – you think it’s just how it is, and just how you are. But it’s not. It’s as real a condition as diabetes, and CBT might just be your ‘insulin’, as it is proven that we can restructure the brain to new defaults through ‘learning and doing’. This is all very primal, it’s the human condition with these brains of ours that were cobbled together through evolution, but it is very manageable, and the brain can be rewired. Literally. Read on….

If our bodies are simmering in and out of fight or flight inappropriately due to this miscommunication, we will likely feel a bit panicky and shaky in response to benign situations – we will feel bad – and we will over respond to things, we will use emotional reasoning to evaluate life and to assign meaning and significance to events: eg “I feel bad, therefore it is bad” – which will cause us to develop bad habits of irrational thinking, which of course will result in self sabotaging behaviour.

Human beings will do anything to avoid the discomfort of fight or flight – it’s how evolution happened, it’s how we survived – ‘is this good or bad? is this safe or dangerous?’ – so with general anxiety we often become micro control freaks. We try to control our environment, ourselves, other people, the world. We develop rules for living, demand thinking of how things should, must, and ought to be. We don’t like unpredictability or surprises or change.  We adopt the bad thinking habits of fortune telling and mind reading in order to anticipate and problem solve (good luck with that Mystic Meg!). We do a lot of ‘avoidant behaviour’. We largely create our own upsettness.

UPSHOT SUMMARY: Your feelings can cause habits of negative thoughts and behaviours – but please remember:
FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS. Feelings are the neurobiology of how your brain is processing your world. Thought stop and check the facts, cool yourself down – belly breathe it down…

(This disorder often brings with it Low Frustration Tolerance, click HERE to see if you’ve got it.)

Click through the links peppered throughout this post for the theory and application to help you to see whether this applies to you, and the work on changing it if it does. And, read on for therapy solutions:

The typical therapy approaches:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy works on restructuring your thinking (cognitive) and the way you interpret and judge situations – ‘Distorted negative thoughts and beliefs – cause emotional and physical reactions to situations – which cause self sabotaging behavioural choices”

Behavioural Therapy works on building awareness of self limiting or self defeating or self sabotaging behaviours, and deliberately and consciously changing and managing them – “The things you do – cause you to feel bad  – which influences your thoughts and beliefs in a negative way.”

This post is pretty much looking at Feeling Therapy (I don’t think that’s even a term, but it’ll do – this post is a work in progress) – where we focus on the neuroscience of our brain and nervous system, and build awareness of this very real physical disorder, and  develop the skill of thought stopping and reframing our processing of what’s going on, and the meaning and significance we assign to events, by telling ourselves that ‘FEELINGS ARE NOT FACTS’. Just because you feel bad doesn’t mean the situation is bad – it may well be a default conditioned miscommunication.


Start NOTICING’. Keep a journal and note when you’re shaky, what it feels like physically, what you’re thinking at the time, what you do at the time. Notice your patterns and habits.

Practice belly breathing and other relaxation techniques to help return your body to homeostasis/balance (turn down the fight or flight). Tell yourself ‘there is no tiger, this is anxiety, just because I feel bad doesn’t mean it is bad. I’m okay, it’s okay, breathe….’

Reconsider and reframe the situation using logic and rational thinking skills (your prefrontal cortex), instead of emotional reasoning. Replace your irrational self talk with rational self talk that reflects the situation.

Put in place a mantra and routine to thought stop‘Wait a minute, what’s the evidence for this thought and belief? Is there any evidence against it? What has this kind of thinking cost me?….’ – and do it again and again and again. Apply apply apply, until your bad thinking habits are disturbed and not automatic.

Start using Mindfulness to regulate your emotions. Take a look at the  Just Noting mindfulness strategy that can be adapted to manage anxiety.

This post blends neuroscience with holistic CBT – encouraging unconditional and non judgmental acceptance. It is what it is, and it can be dealt with, but it can only effectively be dealt with by YOU. Become your own therapist. Learn and DO.

For a chronological tour of this site: Start here.

Feel free to keep in touch and let me know how you get on.

Good luck.

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