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Nikki Owen: Fight-or-flight mode and letting go


I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was trying to buy a house. It was a hard time, as house buying normally is, but this one was with the added pressure of not only minimum financial resources, but with an additional ticking clock that, as someone self-employed with Covid (though I did not know it then) around the corner, meant that if I didn’t close on the house sale within a matter of weeks, if the whole thing fell through, I wouldn’t be able to afford to buy a place to live. 

At the time, I was in constant fight or flight mode, I just didn’t know it, and it got me thinking –   that phrase, fight or flight. It’s something we hear about, isn’t it, that instinctive human response to living, and yet it’s not often something we realise we are actually doing. 

When our backs are up against the wall or we’re in trouble, fight or flight becomes our response, trained as we are from the beginning of time to fight or flee in the presence of perceived danger. Thing is, that response was honed hundreds of years ago. Way back in the Stone Age, humans had to peg it from saber toothed tigers that threatened their lives, and yet, today, with no imminent tiger threat (that I’m aware of), that response, that fight or flight instinct is still very much a part of us.

I talk about this because it’s a response for me that’s been very much at the forefront of my life  – and it’s taken until this week for me to realise just how much. With quite the (very) emotional realistion, I saw that I’d gotten so used to having to be in fight or flight mode that I’d ended up almost constantly in it, as if it were normal, does that make sense? 

The trouble is, no one can constantly continue in that mode, the sustained level of the stress hormone cortisol it produces, which puts pressure not only on our minds, but on our bodies.

Yet, is it any surprise we’ve been on guard? Covid, lockdown, lack of contact, anxiety, social media and living up to impossible images, work pressures, teenagers and their exams, parents and keeping a roof over the family’s head, losing jobs, searching for new ones, relationship issues, worrying for a loved one’s well being, illness, childhood issues, not sometimes not knowing where the next meal may be coming from – these are just some of the constant pressures many of us find ourselves under. No matter where we live in the world, the things we may have to flee from can not only be relentless, but often invisible.

So what’s the solution? There’s no wand – how I dearly wish there was a magic wand where I could mend all the sadness and disaster in the world in one compassionate swish – but what I’ve (only just) discovered, what I am (slowly) learning to do is stop, to just for a moment take a step back and for a second, say, it’s okay, I can stop fleeing, right now, I don’t have to fight anymore, enough. The space it creates, even just for a moment, is not only an utter relief, it’s a game changer. 

It’s hard for me to stop, to rest (as my friends will attest…) yet by saying enough to it all, enough for now, we take back the power in our lives, we give ourselves the permission to let go, to pause, to breathe and to, often for the very first time in a long time, relax. 

And then when we have to fight the flames again, for we will, as life’s theatre demands, we’ll be ready, and we’ll remember that relaxed feeling we know we have the power to press play on – as if it were yesterday. 

Nikki Owen is an author and endurance athlete living in Stroud.

Instagram @nikkiowen_author_athlete

Twitter @nikkiwriter

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