How to Stop the Fight or Flight Response
Updated: Feb 26, 2022
School is back in session and anxiety has been running high for some of the kids I see for counseling. I have had a few have panic attacks without realize what is happening to them. Some are mild, some are more severe, but the underlying issue is that their thoughts have gotten out of control and their bodies are responding.
Another issue I have had already this school year is children who are getting intensely angry. One little guy is used to having his own space and making his own decisions. He is struggling to adjust to following the school schedule and is having a problem with other children having different opinions! He wants to make good choices, but at some point, he feels like he loses control.
The underlying issue in both cases is the fight or flight response. When the body feels threatened the fight or flight response is triggered. This causes the heart to beat faster, increased speed of breathing, and many other symptoms. Some people feel light headed, some describe it as going black for a few seconds. Most people will clench their fists and will have tense muscles. The body is prepared to run or to fight. If this response is triggered, it is difficult to make good decisions and have self-control.
Related Post: Counseling Interventions for Children with Anxiety
Body awareness is one of the foundational skills I teach as a counselor. Children (adults, too!) need to learn how their bodies work, why they feel out of control, and how to calm down. They also need to become aware of their triggers so they can plan for how they will deal with the triggers in the future.
First, I like to draw a picture of a body and have them show where they feel their anxiety or anger and explain how they feel. Each person can have different symptoms and the children need to be aware of what their symptoms are and what is happening in their bodies when these symptoms show up.
Secondly, I like to have them make an anger or anxiety meter. We discuss various levels of anxiety or anger. If they are able to recognize that they are being stimulated, they can implement coping skills before it gets out of control.
The third aspect is identifying appropriate coping skills. The primary coping skill to address the fight or flight response will be slow, deep breathing. However, many children need more than one skill, as when they are overwhelmed breathing alone may not help. I like to show them the turtle technique or a more grown-up version of this would be putting their head on their desk with arms folded underneath. Other ideas are progressive relaxation, thought-stopping and replacement techniques, squeezing something, and seeking out an adult if necessary.
Panic attacks and anger outbursts are quite difficult for children to deal with at school. There is often fallout afterward, such as embarrassment or punishment. When children are aware of why their body is responding in such an aggressive way, they are able to take control of the situation and calm down before they lose control.
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