2. Anxiety and the Nervous System Response


Our bodies have what’s called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This system automatically regulates bodily functions so we do not have to think about them. Examples are breathing, heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure. When we experience a stressful situation (danger), or perceive a threat the ANS engages a fight (punch back, take action), flight (run, move away from the situation), or freeze (feeling numb, making yourself small or complying) response, also known as the Sympathetic Nervous Response.

This response is automatic and sends a flash flood of hormones such as epinephrine, corticotropin and cortisol to boost the body's alertness level giving us a quick energy boost. This response increases our breathing rate, perspiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. It also decreases digestion, relaxes the bladder, causes tunnel vision, temporarily shuts off the immune system, and a slew of other physical symptoms.

During the fight, flight, freeze response the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) turns off. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for words, planning, etc. Then the back part of our brain (limbic), which is reactive, gets amped up as if it’s on steroids. This can be extremely helpful if a wild animal is chasing you because you don’t have time to make a plan, create a list of things to do, or call a friend. This is not helpful if your perceived danger, (unlikely danger) is simply driving without incident and the front part of your brain turns off, or you’re giving a public speech and suddenly can’t find your words. This response is good temporarily, if we are actually in a dangerous situation because our power is now where we need it. The downside is, if our fight, flight, freeze response is turned on too often then our bodies become ill due to our systems being shut off. This leads to exhaustion, insomnia, muscle tension, digestive problems, and frequent illness.

However, our body has a beautiful way to counterbalance this response. This is known as the Parasympathetic Nervous Response (PNR), also referred to as rest and digest. The PNR is our body's natural way of slowing down and creating a sense of calm and safety. Think of the PNR as one way to restore homeostasis and is most active when the body is at rest and recuperating.

So, why the fight, flight, or freeze response? The truth is, this reaction is our body's way of keeping us safe. For thousands of years our biggest challenge was survival, such as wild animal attacks, dangerous heights, warring tribes, and other basic dangers. Because of this our bodies developed an instinctual way to keep us safe. In current day we have become overstimulated making it sometimes difficult to determine an actual threat versus a perceived threat that has very little chance of diminished safety. An overreaction, if you will.

A great place to start is simply noticing your response going into fight, flight, or freeze mode and giving it a label. Examples are; “I’m having a fight response right now.”, or “I’m noticing myself complying. I am having a freeze response.”. Emotional awareness and anxiety education is the first step to understanding anxiety and how to treat it.


Kristé Sprague is a Doctor of Transpersonal Counseling, Certified Neuroplasticity Specialist, Certified Holistic Practitioner, Certified Recovery Coach and Reiki Master. Kristé specializes in Anxiety Recovery Therapy in Ellsworth, Maine using a compassionate, heart-centered, solution-focused, holistic counseling and coaching model along with neuroplasticity. Kristé, is currently seeing clients for anxiety therapy online across the USA. Kristé Sprague, Ph.D. Online Anxiety Recovery Therapy https://www.gatewaytohappy.com​