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Fight-or-Flight: Role in Anxiety and Depression

The numbers are scary. The prolonged recession with its home foreclosures, layoffs and job insecurity is taking its toll on America’s collective psyche. As a result, there has been a major surge in mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20% of all visits to the doctor today are for stress-based anxiety disorders like panic attacks and generalized anxiety disorder. Furthermore, in article, Guardian magazine reports that among people who have lost their jobs in the last year, 71% have suffered from symptoms of depression.

The Fight-Or-Flight Response

Combating recession-based anxiety and depression starts with an understanding of stress and the fight-or-flight response, major contributors to serious mental illnesses (SMI).

Our brains are “pre-wired” to quickly react to perceived threats. The most primitive part of our brain responds to threats to our well being and survival quickly. This is known as the flight-or-fight response. When cornered we fight, when the better option is to flee we take flight.

A number of things happen to us when we’re under severe stress. Our bodies are flooded with hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that help us cope. Our eyesight sharpens, our digestion stops, moving more blood and glucose to the muscles so we can run faster; we breathe deeper to pump more oxygen into the brain, making us more alert, and sometimes we get extraordinary strength that helps us when we choose to fight.

The problem is that the fight-or-flight response developed in humans during a time when it was frequently needed. It served our earliest ancestors well when they had something to flee from or fight, like a large animal with razor-sharp teeth.

The Relaxation Response

Prehistoric man quickly recovered from acute stress when he was out of danger and the “relaxation response” kicked in. This survival trait produces a state of deep rest that is the polar opposite of stress.

During the relaxation response, chemicals are released that reduce stress hormones, slowing your heart rate, lowering your blood pressure and relaxing your muscles. This brings your system back into balance. Eventually you achieve a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis.

Stress and the Fight-Or-Flight Response in Modern Society

Today the fight-or-flight response usually works against us.

Imagine your boss putting a pile of new work on your desk when you’re already on overload because of staff cutbacks. Well, you certainly can’t get up and run and punching a stack of reports you’re supposed to edit will get you nowhere. Basically you’re trapped and you feel powerless.

Unfortunately, your body is still flooded with stress-fighting hormones that can’t be counteracted quickly. When you’re unable to achieve the relaxation response, the result is stress that continues for hours, sometimes even days.

This constant barrage of chemicals wears your body down, damaging everything from the cardiovascular system to brain cells and suppressing the immune system. Prolonged stress contributes greatly to anxiety disorders and depression because while you’re body is in overdrive, there is nowhere for it to run and nothing for it to fight. Basically, what’s firing off your system is frightening, negative thoughts.

How to Beat Recession-Based Depression and Anxiety

What can you do to combat recession-based stress and the severe mental illnesses that often are a result of it?

For starters, focus on what you have, not what you don’t have or might have lost. Count your blessings if you still have a job and a house. Begin appreciating the little joys in life that make you feel happy. Make sure to cherish every important relationship you have. When you’re feeling anxious or down, interacting with friends and loved ones often makes the difference between health and illness.

Secondly, take the bull by the horns. Be proactive, not passive. Anxiety and situation-based depression are usually related to things that can be improved with self -help and self growth.

In his book 10 Days to Self-Esteem, Dr. David D. Burns notes that only you can make yourself feel bad. Low self-esteem, lack of assertiveness and people-pleasing are traits that most people plagued by serious mental illnesses share.

If you can’t find an anxiety and depression support group in your community, buy some books recommended by experts. Read them actively, highlighting key points and then follow their advice religiously.

Finally, take comfort in the fact that situation-based anxiety and depression are highly treatable. Unfortunately, mental illness is highly stigmatized in our society. As a result, many people who need help never seek it.

Conjure up the bravery and strength to see a doctor. In most cases your disorder can be overcome with a combination of medicine, lifestyle changes, and talk therapy. The fact is, full recovery from a serious mental illness is attainable, but you have to work hard to achieve it.

Fen Hsuen

Fen Hsuen is a leading voice in the western world when it comes to the masterful art of sound therapy. Originally pursuing high levels of education in neuroscience and pharmacology, she quickly became fascinated by the potential for sound as a healing modality. This interest led her to start brainvalley, one of the first companies to offer online sound therapy courses. Fen is also a psychedelic science advocate, and is well known for her content around health and wellness.

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