Different parts of our brains are responsible for the four responses we often default to when in a situation we perceive as threatening: people-pleasing (hyper-socialisation), fight, flight, and freeze. Because these responses don’t distinguish between real and perceived threat, it doesn’t matter whether we are actually in danger or not: most often we’ll go into one of these responses in everyday situations when in fact we’re perfectly safe, such as when we’re socialising in a large group or in a disagreement with someone we love.
What Is The Fight or Flight Response?
We’re actually talking about four different survival responses. In brief: hyper-socialisation appears as trying to keep everyone happy. This could involve telling lots of jokes, giving lots of compliments, or smiling and laughing much more than you might otherwise. The fight response can manifest as outright aggression, or as trying to exert control over a situation. Flight causes us to want to disengage, run away, and hide, while freeze involves a level of dissociation where we literally freeze up, often becoming unable to move or act.
These are emotional responses which may have been caused by unresolved trauma at some point in our history, and triggered by a current event. The more evolved part of our brain, our neocortex, would allow us to rationalise and notice that we are not in any real danger and that we don’t need to fight or dissociate. But this part of our brain doesn’t respond as quickly as the older limbic system, and instead our survival instincts kick in much faster and prevent us from behaving the way we would like to.
If this happens often and prevents you from the intimacy and anxiety-free social life you want, there are things you can do. Of course therapy may be useful, but there are also ways of helping yourself to move through these responses so they have less power over your behaviour.
1. Notice Your Fight or Flight Symptoms
The first thing to do is to become acquainted with the behaviour your stress response triggers. For people with social anxiety, socialising in groups could go one of several ways: perhaps a hyper-socialising response where they go into people-pleasing mode, desperately trying to impress everyone in the room, or a shut-down frozen response where they feel completely unable to form sentences.
Whatever the situation you struggle with, and the response it elicits, notice what happens in your body. Do you start biting your fingernails or feeling your face going red? Do you feel tingling in your limbs or squirming in your belly? Becoming more connected to your body helps to identify when your limbic system is kicking in, which is the first step to taking away its control.
This isn’t an overnight process, but with practice you can learn the patterns that signify you’re becoming stressed before it spirals too far.
2. Move Away from the Fight or Flight Response
Once you’re able to notice when you start to move into one of these responses you can work with it to move into a less anxious place. Because the fight or flight response comes from the oldest part of our brain in evolutionary terms, the trick is to stop functioning from this place and instead re-engage our neocortex so that more rational behaviour can take over again.
Grounding exercises are a good way to achieve this: asking the brain to notice the body, the environment, and acknowledge who, what, and where we are. Reminding yourself of the actual safe situation you are in rather than the perceived threat. When you first begin practicing this it may help, if possible, to take yourself into a quiet place for a few moments.
You can begin by noticing all the places your body is currently in contact with the earth, maybe your feet on the floor and your buttocks on a chair. Feel the contact, your weight, and the support of the surface. Then move your attention through the rest of your body, noticing each part in turn.
Next, take in your environment, noticing details: perhaps counting how many things of a certain colour you can see. This further helps to bring you back into the part of your brain that can analyse your current situation in a more measured way.
Finally, the breath can be helpful too. Breathing usually becomes shallow and high up in the chest when we’re stressed; by slowing the breath down and bringing it deeper into the belly you can help to move yourself out of anxiety.
3. Practice, Patience, and Compassion
This is a process that takes patience: you’re trying to change potentially deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour, which could take a lot of conscious effort. These stress responses can feel familiar and comfortable, even if we regret our behaviour later. Finding a healthier version of comfortable takes time.
Finding compassion for yourself, both for the stress responses you live with and the time and effort it may take to overcome them, is important too. We all live with patterns that hinder our expression in some way because they’re not an easy thing to recognise or change, and recognising this can help to ease the journey.
Setting an intention is a simple practice, for me mainly associated with a meditation or yoga session. It’s a conscious decision to gently direct my energy towards something specific, without holding too tightly onto reaching a particular goal: making an intention conscious and then letting go of it allows it to still be present, ideally without introducing attachment to an outcome.
It changes the flavour of whatever it is I’m about to do, into an activity that I am doing with a clear idea of why I want to do it, and what its benefits could be.
Something I am learning to do more often is to use intention in other areas of my life. Setting an intention for a day, a relationship, or a conversation perhaps. Considering what’s important to me about whatever I’m about to engage in doesn’t have to be limited to sitting on a cushion or yoga mat.
Removing this limitation is helpful for a few reasons. Firstly, it encourages the habit of asking myself why I do what I do; what is it that I want? What does my body need? As someone who has, historically, found identifying what I want hard, this is good practice.
It also helps to make the implicit explicit, at least to ourselves. If we go into a potentially challenging situation without first taking a minute to find clarity on where our focus is, we leave ourselves susceptible to playing out unhelpful scripts. When we can’t identify and own what we want, we allow our unconscious to run the show.
Entering into a conversation on a sensitive topic with someone we care about could easily turn nasty. Bringing an intention, if only kept to ourselves, to find compassion or to deepen our connection can help to keep us present with what’s most important.
Finally, using intentions in day to day life is a step towards more conscious action. While the point of setting an intention is to direct ourselves in a helpful way, rather than become attached to achieving anything in particular, it’s a practice that can help to steer us towards the life we want for ourselves.
There’s a certain bitter irony in noticing that the times when life is most full and chaotic are probably the times when keeping up with a daily meditation practice would be most beneficial. I spent much of last Winter hibernating: the first two hours of each day I’d spend on a long routine which included movement, touch, seated meditation, and breathwork. I’d go to bed early in the evenings, after another meditation if I felt like it (I often did), and rinse and repeat the next day.
The problem is that this wasn’t very conducive to doing, well, anything much else with my life. It was wonderful while it lasted; at times it felt like I was on my own solitary retreat, save for the hours I spent in the office. But the days began to get longer and warmer, and new projects started, and I missed having a social life.
The challenge in recent months has been finding balance. I don’t have the luxury of many hours each day to meditate any more (as, I suspect, very few of us do). It’s been easy to fall into thinking that not having all this time means that I can’t do anything at all. My daily meditation practice was so structured for that period that anything less, or different, can easily feel like a waste.
This, I remind myself, is a little daft, because all the wisdom I have read and heard so far agrees that a small effort every day is far more beneficial than occasional longer sessions. A familiar lesson I first learned in the gym: consistency always wins (all the best advice is really very dull, as it turns out).
Of course, as with the gym, or any other positive habit you want to include into an already full life, discipline is key. The habit or practice you’re wanting to build is only half of the equation; the other half is the practice of practicing.
I have gone from having almost all the time in the world to meditate, to planning a move to a different city and preparing for temporary couchsurfing, figuring out which days I can sleep where, organising to send as many of my belongings into storage as possible, and all while holding down the last few weeks of a full-time job (and maintaining a social life). It’s as good a time to practice as any.
Here are some things that help me:
1. Give Yourself Options for Daily Meditation Practices
Days when I feel less motivation are characterised by a sense of either, “I just don’t feel like it” or “I don’t have time.” Usually when I feel this way I’m imagining a 20 minute sit and noticing how little my body wants to be that still for that long.
Over the years I’ve explored a few different practices. What my favourites all have in common is that they all allow me to bring my focus back to my body, help me to learn to feel more, and give me the space to slow down. Many of them don’t involve sitting on a cushion, which means I have options. If I feel I need some movement, I can spend some time with a movement or pleasure practice. If sitting feels tiring, I can do some breathwork lying down. And if I am up for a seated meditation then I have a few of those to choose from, too, depending on where I feel I need to focus.
I find it challenging to not get hung up on what I should be doing (because it’s been my routine in the past, or because I feel one practice is “better” than another), but the truth is that any of these practices serve my intentions and being able to choose from a few options means that I’m far more likely to practice every day, whatever my circumstance or mood.
My top three different, five-minutes-no-excuses practices when time is short and energy is low:
- Five minutes of moving my body however it wants to move. No music, just listening to what I feel.
- Five minutes of box breathing, either lying down or sitting.
- Five minutes of seated somatic meditation, focusing on where I feel the breath in my body and what sensations I notice there.
2. Focus on What You Enjoy
I have the advantage now of having seen the benefits of a regular practice, and that often serves as a motivation for me when I need it. It’s trickier if you’re just starting out, though. It can be helpful to remember why you want this habit in your life in the first place, or what it is about meditating that you do enjoy. Perhaps your body feels grateful for the attention, or perhaps you love the alone time.
Find your reason for doing what you want to do, and use that as a motivation.
3. Make Daily Meditation Work With Your Existing Routine
Are there moments during your day where you could already practice some breathwork, or focusing your attention inwards? A daily commute, while you’re doing the washing up, while you’re walking the dog… Meditation doesn’t have to happen while you’re sitting on the cushion, and turning the mundane stuff into a conscious daily practice is valuable too.
Even using some breathwork or meditation as a short routine right before sleep can be a wonderful way help wind down and relax.
4. Just Phone It In
This is a very useful and valid strategy. Make a commitment to do something every day, even if it’s as simple as watching your breath for five minutes. Some days you’ll feel more motivated than others, and that’s fine; the point is that you’re building the habit by making that small effort every day, no matter how half-arsed.
Practice compassion for yourself, and avoid judging your efforts, no matter how small they are. Doing a little bit every day is still enormously worthwhile.
Last year I was asked the question over and over again, “what do you want?”
The truest answer I gave was, “to learn to feel more deeply.”
I’ve had an on-and-off meditation practice for over ten years, and while I appreciated learning to focus my awareness and develop compassion, it never felt very connected to my immediate experience. I was never taught to go into my body and feel what was there, as an embodied practice.
For me, being unable to feel into myself cuts me off from many things. It makes it hard to make the best decisions for myself, because I think through everything instead of understanding my needs from a deeper place. Thinking through things instead of feeling into them leaves me susceptible to getting caught up in stories around what I ‘should’ want.
Disconnection from my body also makes it harder to notice pleasure, or for pleasure to be reduced to a very narrow type of sexual pleasure: a type that relies primarily on tension and urgency. Becoming more aware of how my body feels from the inside not only enhances more relaxed, expanded forms of sexual pleasure, but also opens me up to noticing many other pleasurable sensations that aren’t necessarily related to sex. And the more I notice, the more there is.
Learning to feel more deeply means turning up the dial on the rough as well as the smooth, though. For me, this meant allowing myself to go deep into the panic and really feel it from the inside, and allow myself to grieve. It hurt, and it felt lonely. There was anger and frustration there that I hadn’t allowed myself to feel before, and I could feel it now. For a long time, whenever I meditated, I felt a tight, dense knot in the centre of my chest. Every time I noticed it I pushed it away, not wanting to allow that discomfort, not wanting to admit to contraction and tightness.
Eventually I began to understand that feeling anything there at all was a sign that I was indeed learning to feel more deeply, and I began to accept it as part of the process. As soon as I approached it in this way instead it began to loosen. The memory of that moment reminds me to accept discomfort now in my practice.
So how can we learn to feel more, and develop a more embodied awareness of ourselves?
1. Practice Compassion
First of all, we must be in a place where we can accept everything we feel, or might feel, without trying to suppress it or judge ourselves for it. We must understand that learning to feel ourselves will mean allowing for the anger and grief as well as the pleasure and joy, and feeling challenging emotions or sensations can be taken as a sign that we are making progress. It’s a way of practicing intimacy with ourselves; allowing all of our experience to be seen, acknowledging it, and meeting it with kindness.
There are many ways to go about this, but my favourite is through an acknowledgment that the ‘negative’ feelings are there for a reason. We feel anger to keep us safe. Feeling grief is proof that we are capable of forming deep, emotional attachments, and it also teaches us about what’s important to us. Viewing difficult feelings in this way can help us to accept and welcome them.
2. Notice Background Pleasure
This is a simple practice that Michaela Boehm talks about often in her podcast. Throughout the day, whenever you remember, and no matter what you’re doing, feel for some pleasure. Even if you’re uncomfortable or a little too cold, or your foot’s gone to sleep, find some place in your body that feels good, and focus your attention there for a moment.
Making this a daily habit helps to keep our attention more in our whole bodies, as well as tuning us in to the pleasure we can feel.
3. Practice Embodied, Active Listening
Noticing how our bodies respond while we’re in conversation can be a really helpful way to connect with others more deeply, as well as ourselves, in a more embodied way. We’re being given so much information, all the time, by what we can feel – even if it’s numbness.
Next time you have a conversation see if you can feel any sensations while you’re listening. Is your body echoing emotions that the other person is displaying? Or are you getting a more felt sense of your own attitudes towards the person? Perhaps you’re able to pick up on what the other person is feeling before they’ve even made it explicit.
Practice noticing this experience that your whole body has in the presence of another person, without judging or attaching stories to feelings that come up.
4. Discover Your Somatic Markers
It’s called a ‘gut feeling’ for a reason. Our body can give us so much information about our needs if we pay attention, but it can take a little time to tune in to this wisdom if we’re not used to listening to it.
We can develop this sense through practice. One way I like to do this is to start with fairly inconsequential things: what kind of tea would I like to drink right now? There’s always a story attached (I never drink peppermint tea in the morning… I’m trying to drink less caffeine… last time I drank camomile tea I was too sleepy afterwards…) so it becomes a practice of gently moving my attention away from these thoughts and towards how my body feels. Does anything light up inside when I think about each option? Do I feel any closing or opening? Do these senses conflict with the stories my mind is playing through?
A helpful way to use this for me recently has involved decisions around how I spend my time; whether I really want to go out and be sociable, or whether I’m feeling obligated and actually I’d much rather stay home. Often I’ll know I’d rather take some me time when the thought of running a bath leads to a feeling of openness and relaxation in my belly.
Conversely, for me, agreeing to do something with someone who my body knows will drain too much of my energy right now is often indicated by a subtle tightness in my chest, a sensation of wanting to pull away, or a dropping sensation in my belly. I can notice these feelings in other situations too, and recognise them as a sign that I may not be doing the best thing for myself.
This is very much an ongoing journey for me, and sometimes it’s not possible or appropriate to do as my body says in this way. But developing and maintaining this sense is extremely helpful for when it is needed, and opens me up to being more present with my body and its needs.