How to own your fight-or-flight response

“When a child is scared of monsters in the dark, you don’t teach him to relax, breathe, or cope. You turn on the lights.” -Andrew Bernstein, The Myth of Stress


Our entryway reeked the morning after my thirtieth birthday. The smell worsened as the days opened and closed: the floorboards stank, the plants stank, the furniture stank. At first my roommates and I thought it might be the bouquet of yellow roses, the edges slowly browning and stiffening. Or perhaps the outside garbage was wafting in, that damn heat. But then, in the midst of a photography session, I caught glimpse of a pile of bird droppings in the corner.

“It’s still in here, J. It never made it out.”

We don’t typically talk about stress symptoms. We talk about stress, the noun. I have so many deadlines. I’m so stressed out; want to go for coffee? I need a drink pronto Toronto. I have the stress. But the symptoms of stress? The fight-or-flight response? Sleepless nights, the eat nothing but coffee and crackers diet, the so tired I might knock someone out (if only I had the energy) feeling – they get thrown down the garbage shoot faster than drafts and yesterday’s to-do list.

On that morning, two women proceeded to pull out the putrid chairs and the putrid table and the putrid couches in that reeking room until a small bird appeared, covered in such a mass of maggots its tiny corpse appeared to pulse, the worms as thick as my baby fingernails. Did the bird fly in to die, as one of my other roommates suggested? Was it sick? Did it happen by our window by accident, an innocent bystander injured during its stay? I have picked up after and swept the bones of dead mice, dried sinks with old towels to keep cockroaches out. But I still think about that bird.

I was sick, too. I’d been coping with paralyzing fatigue for months after the launch of a large project and the stress of it all preceding it. Heart palpitations arrived weeks before, followed by chest tenderness and difficulty breathing. I wondered, briefly, if these were stress symptoms, but dismissed them. Moving was painful; walking sucked my energy reserves dry. I drank green juice and took my supplements with a level of devotion typically reserved for saints and martyrs. “You’re having panic attacks,” a helpful acquaintance suggested. “You’re anemic,” another said. “Have you checked your B12?” I went for bloodwork twice, three EKGs, and wore a Holter monitor. A nurse in the ER asked me if I was a nurse, too, as I detailed my symptoms. The consensus: perfect health. Nothing. Nada. “What about…stress?” everyone I came across quietly asked. Of course I was stressed; wasn’t everyone? My symptoms were physical, though. Surely there had to be a diagnosis for me, some medical reason. There wasn’t.

I felt like shit.

In holistic nutrition, we often talk about psychosomatic illnesses and issues. We give a large amount of weight to issues like stress and its related symptoms. Spontaneous remissions. The placebo effect. The power of positive thinking. How some people can wish themselves well while others worry themselves sick. I just assumed that if it were to happen to me, I would know.

“The stress that most humans experience today offers no survival advantages. In fact, just the opposite is true — experiencing stress damages your body and leads to a long list of diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain and fatigue, and depression, which shorten your life. If your main interest is in living happily and not in fleeing predators, you’ll want to lessen the amount of stress you experience, and that means learning to identify your counterfactual thoughts and challenge them.” -Andrew Bernstein

After letting my own fight-or-fight response take hold of me, I did what I always do: read about the symptoms of stress and anxiety obsessively. And slowly — ridiculously slowly — I started taking ownership of my own beliefs and my symptoms have disappeared. Today I’m sharing some tips I personally found helpful, inspired by the really fascinating The Myth of Stress by Andrew Bernstein, founder of ActivInsight.


“Stress always indicates a blind spot.” ­-Andrew Bernstein

Stress and its symptoms, as Bernstein explains, don’t originate in external conditions. We know this because not everyone reacts the same way to a given situation. Of course, things like death, illness, poverty – these are challenging and tough to work through. But it’s the not these things in and of themselves that are causing stress, in the same way that deadlines and heavy workloads aren’t the root of your stress, either. What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t complete your to-do list today? Don’t finish that big project on time? Don’t work eighty-hour weeks? “Stress is an inside job, a result of subconscious assumptions.” What assumptions are you making about yourself and your life that are not true? Which of these are causing you undue emotional turmoil?


“Insight by its nature involves the emergence of new information, so it’s inherently challenging. And if you’re open to that, it can lead to a very different experience than the one you’ve been stuck in.” -Andrew Bernstein

Consider what your stress is trying to teach you. What lessons are being presented? What are you here to learn? If the situation is difficult, ask yourself why. Instead of focusing on the difficulties, keep an eye out for opportunity. A layoff, for example, is possibly stress-inducing. I was certainly stressed about mine – until I accepted that it really was in my best interest, even though the prospect of living without a secure paycheque and going out in the world to find another job caused a great deal of anguish. As soon as I acknowledged how much happier I might be in a different situation, my stress symptoms vanished. I just instinctively knew that somehow, some way, it would all work out. Does it always? I’d like to think it does — if we believe it and show the universe we’ve taken something away from the experience. Maybe a layoff is your chance to dream big and pursue those lofty goals, for example. Or perhaps it’s your turn to offer consulting services, to mentor and coach those new to your field so they, too, can succeed.


“The fewer negative emotions you live with, the better you feel.” -Bernstein

I’ve had clients come to me, looking to go on a detox. While there are many foods out there to support detoxification (whole ones), what’s most important, if you ask me, is to detox our relationships. Does being around some people just stress you out? I love – love – hanging with my friends because they’re so open-minded, happy, and supportive. Sometimes I need a dose of girl’s night out. Do you ever feel that way? By surrounding yourself with expansive and positive people, you can eliminate a lot of the nasty feelings you experience and reduce your stress symptoms. I could focus on the bird I needed to somehow clean up after — or realize I was surrounded by a community of people, like the woman who helped me to find it so I didn’t have to do it alone, or another roommate who came home and took care of the situation with me.

“Expansive thoughts give your mind wings and make you feel wonderful — think of a big project you’re excited by, a vacation you’re planning, a special someone you can’t stop thinking about. These types of thoughts are all made possible by your neocortex’s ability to counterfactually depart from ‘this’ and envision ‘that’. What could be more human or inspiring? You don’t need to work on expansive beliefs and the positive emotions they create. Just enjoy them.” -Bernstein


“Without stress, we learn faster and we sustain our level of interest longer. We’re in the zone.” -Bernstein

Anxiety, fear, confusion and anger – they bog us down and suck our energy. They’re certainly not empowering emotions. When you feel stressed, try exercising, going out to see a movie with friends, or taking a short vacation. Stimulation, unlike stress, actually helps us to accomplish more and inspires us to greater heights. As Bernstein explains: “Stress…whether it’s anxiety, frustration, anger, or other negative emotions, limits your ability to perform in a number of ways. It makes you less creative, it reduces your ability to concentrate, it makes effective communication harder, and it shortens the amount of time you can sustain an effort. The bottom line is, stress is a demotivator. If you’re stressed out and still succeeding, you’re succeeding in spite of your stress, not because of it.”

Back to you: do you have any tips for working your way out of stress and its symptoms?

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8