By Natasha Thomas, MD
Content revised: 01/25/2024

Posted on: November 5, 2018

If you feel more stressed than you’d like, you’re not alone. Millions (probably billions) of people deal with significant stress on a regular basis. Let’s face it: living can be a little stressful! For many of us, this means a nervous system stuck in fight or flight and the melting away of our zen.

Not all stress is created equal. Some stress is unavoidable. If we’re surprised by a loud, sudden noise, most of us will startle and feel our hearts racing afterward. But other forms of stress—especially chronic stress—are not. 

In fact, much of the stress we deal with is about how we respond to a situation, rather than the situation itself. That kind of stress can be overwhelming, but we can also do something about it. Before we get into that, let’s talk a little about how stress actually works in the body and what it means to have a nervous system stuck in fight or flight. 

How Stress Works in the Body: The Stress Response Cycle

When you feel stressed—tension, anxiety, rapid pulse, racing thoughts, sweat, a heavy feeling in your chest—what you’re experiencing is the result of a series of events, called the stress response cycle. This instinctual cycle begins with your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis, which includes parts of your brain and your hormone-producing adrenal glands, is what jump-starts your body’s stress response, triggering the release of hormones like adrenaline that activate your sympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system, more commonly known as your fight-or-flight instinct (and now increasingly spoken of as fight, flight or freeze), is what actually gets your body riled up. This is supposed to be a temporary state—a momentary burst of energy to help you get out of danger. This is meant to last just until the stressful situation is over, but if your body doesn’t complete its stress response cycle, you’ll be left with a nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

The problem is that our stress response, which is essentially a primal instinct meant to help us escape from the sort of life or death situations that animals encounter in the wild, does not distinguish between genuine danger and the more banal stressors of modern life. The stressor doesn’t even have to be external or physical—it can simply exist in our minds. 

In addition, aspects of how we live today, including what we eat and how we spend our time, can further influence our feelings of stress. The result is that we’re constantly dealing with experiences that leave us feeling stressed out. 

When we’re constantly feeling stressed out, we develop an overactive nervous system, which is to say a dysregulated nervous system stuck in fight or flight. A nervous system stuck in fight or flight cannot properly regulate essential functions for health, such as digestion, immune response, and sleep, and this can lead to a host of physiological consequences. 

How to Stop Flight or Fight Response

To stop the fight-or-flight response and reinstate calm in our nervous system, we have to signal to our body that the perceived threat has passed so that it will complete its stress response cycle. When the body perceives that it’s safe, the HPA axis will stop releasing stress hormones, activate the calming parasympathetic nervous system; and your body will return to equilibrium.

To initiate this process for a nervous system stuck in fight or flight, we have to create a sense of safety, which involves promoting relaxation in our mind and our body. Fortunately, this is something we can do very effectively with mind-body techniques.

What Are Mind-Body Techniques?

Mind-body is a term that has become increasingly popular in health and wellness circles. But what is it really about? Simply put: presence. Mind-body techniques help you learn to be more present with your body and your moment-to-moment experience, and to spend less time chasing your thoughts (and the stress those thoughts create). That’s why they’re such a great tool for calming the body and freeing a nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

Ebook Cover

Enjoying this article?
Subscribe + don’t miss the next one!

We’ll also send you our e-book: Live Younger 25 Ways to Age Gracefully—Starting Now.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Mind-Body Practices for a Nervous System Stuck in Fight or Flight

Let’s start with a mind-body practice based on something most of us do everyday: walking. Most of the time, when we’re going for a walk, our minds are elsewhere. We’re (hopefully) paying attention to where we’re going, but otherwise, we’re likely thinking about something that isn’t right in front of us. We’re caught up in a story that we’re telling ourselves about ourselves—and oftentimes, that story is a scary one. In other words, we’re worrying, which can significantly contribute to chronic stress and quickly have our nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

For example, let’s say we get a bill in the mail that we can’t afford to pay. We have the initial stressful experience—seeing and opening the bill. But that experience of opening the bill only lasts a few moments. Where most of us run into trouble is that we’ll spend the rest of the day, or the week, worrying about the bill. This will not only make the day a stressful one, but can keep our nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

However, if we use practices like mindful walking, we can take a break from the thoughts keeping our nervous system stuck in fight or flight by putting our attention towards the experience we’re having in our body as we walk. 

nervous system stuck in fight or flight, image of Sepia-toned image showing a person’s feet as they walk along cobble stone wearing pink tennis shoes—a representation of mindful walking for restoring a nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

We can notice the sensation of our feet touching the ground, the color of the leaves on the trees as we walk by, the humidity in the air, and the sunshine on our faces. We can also notice our internal weather—the feelings in our bodies and the pull of our minds as we get caught up again in thinking and telling ourselves stories.

Mindful walking is just one example of the many ways we can integrate mind-body techniques into our daily life. Here are several more practices to help bring awareness to the present moment, promote relaxation, and reduce stress.

1. Mindfulness and Meditation

Mindfulness and meditation are great mind-body practices for a nervous system stuck in fight or flight. There are many different meditation forms, ranging from guided imagery to loving-kindness meditation to traditional Buddhist and Hindu techniques. One popular type of meditation called Vipassana, which means to see things as they really are, involves sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath as it flows in and out. You’ll constantly find yourself getting distracted, and that’s okay—but when you notice you’re distracted, you bring your attention back to your breath.

I’m also fond of a related practice called alternate-nostril breathing. Instead of simply focusing on your breath, alternate-nostril breathing goes like this:

  1. Covering your right nostril with your thumb, inhale through your left nostril.
  2. Moving your thumb to cover the left nostril you just inhaled through, exhale through the now open right nostril. 
  3. Inhale through your right nostril, cover it, and exhale through your left.
  4. Repeat this pattern indefinitely.

Enjoying this article? Subscribe + don’t miss the next one!

We’ll also send you our e-book: Live Younger 25 Ways to Age Gracefully—Starting Now.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

2. Mind-Body Therapies

Incorporating mindfulness and meditation techniques into your daily routine can be instrumental in soothing a nervous system stuck in fight or flight. For a more guided approach to regulating the nervous system, various therapies also exist, including:

  • Biofeedback
  • Guided Imagery
  • Hypnotherapy
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Massage Therapy
  • Reiki

3. Movement-Based Mind-Body Practices

For those who find it difficult to sit still during meditation, or who are trying to learn how to release body tension quickly, I also recommend movement-based mind-body practices. These practices only offer the immediate stress-reduction benefits of exercise, but can also help train your mind to be more present in the manner of sitting meditation practices. Win-win. Here are some movement-based practices I recommend: 

Yoga: Movement works wonders in yoga, combining physical postures with breath control to not only provide immediate stress-reduction benefits but also train the mind for greater presence.

Qigong: Incorporating gentle movements and breath control, qigong is an ancient Chinese exercise system that not only relieves immediate stress but also fosters mindfulness for a holistic approach to wellbeing.

Tai Chi: A martial art form involving slow, flowing movements, tai chi offers both the stress-reduction benefits of movement and the mindfulness aspects of meditation, providing a dual advantage for calming the mind and body.

Many mind-body practices like these are supported by both thousands of years of historical use and an increasing body of scientific evidence. Indeed, numerous studies have found that mind-body practices can help deactivate the sympathetic nervous system and stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to ultimately regulate a nervous system stuck in fight or flight. 

nervous system stuck in fight or flight, image of Person sitting on a dock in a meditative pose facing mountains and a body of water that’s golden in the sunlight—a representation of meditation for restoring a nervous system stuck in fight or flight.

However, the proof, as they say, is in the practice. Find a mind-body technique you like, and stick with it for a while. You just may find yourself feeling more zen, and finding that you float more easily over the waves of life. 

Working with Natasha Thomas, MD to Regulate Your Nervous System

If you’re struggling to alleviate chronic stress or if you think your symptoms might be caused by a nervous system stuck in fight or flight, I can help you get unstuck. Through a personalized approach combining functional medicine, tailored supplementation, and lifestyle adjustments, I can help you restore nervous system regulation, establish lasting health, and rediscover your inner zen.

Revitalize your life and promote healthy aging through personalized lifestyle medicine with Dr. Natasha Thomas. Schedule a consultation now to take the first step towards a healthier, more vibrant you.

Hit enter to search or ESC to close