Falling in Love Can Feel Scary—Blame Your Fight-or-Flight Response

Photo: Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt
Whether it’s for a recent Hinge match, the hot family friend, or your swolemate, falling for someone is often as much a physical experience as it is an emotional one.

But in many cases, the physical symptoms you’ve been taught to associate with falling in love (quickened heart rate, butterflies, etc.) aren’t actually side effects of love. On the contrary, psychologists say those sensations may be warning signs from your sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—or more specifically, your body’s fight-or-flight response going into overdrive.

The fight-or-flight response is designed to activate when our body senses danger in order to help us survive life-threatening situations, explains clinical psychologist Allison Chase, PhD, regional clinical director with Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. This response is controlled by your sympathetic nervous system, which also manages your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and other key functions.

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When activated, the SNS pumps the body full of hormones (like adrenaline and cortisol), spikes your heart rate, boosts blood flow to muscles, dilates pupils, and impacts stomach function, she says. Ten thousand years ago, this response gave us the energy and ability required to run away from hungry lions or other imminent, life-threatening dangers, Dr. Chase says.

"When we’re in true danger, this [fight-or-flight] system is still very helpful, often life-saving." —Allison Chase, PhD, regional clinical director, Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center

These days, the vast majority of threats do not come in the form of large, dangerous animals. Instead, they tend to be more subtle, manifesting in the form of terse emails from your boss or meeting your Tinder date for the first time IRL. But Dr. Chase says the body responds to these stressors the same way it would if there was a carnivorous creature standing a few feet away. Why? Put simply, because the nervous system has not yet adapted to deal with all the everyday stressors of life, says Dr. Chase.

“We still have the same basic body and biological functions we had 10,000 years ago,” she says. “Some people's autonomic nervous system falsely activates when they are not in real danger, and they end up experiencing all the same physiological symptoms as if they were.” (These false activations are especially likely, she notes, for people with sexual or relational trauma).

Whether rightly or wrongly triggered, the physical chain of reactions that follows the nervous system activation is the same, says certified sex therapist Casey Tanner, LCPC, CST, founder and CEO at The Expansive Group, a queer sex therapy practice, and sex expert at pleasure-product company LELO. “When triggered, the sympathetic nervous system quickly shifts blood flow away from activities like digestion and towards the muscles,” they explain, so you can fight off or escape the perceived threat.

Fact is, sometimes you get belly butterflies and sweaty palms just by texting your love—and usually that’s simply because your nervous system is maladapted. “When we’re in true danger, this [fight-or-flight] system is still very helpful, often life-saving,” says Dr. Chase. But when you’re not, it can obviously be incredibly confusing.

So how can you tell if your fight-or-flight is a false alarm or red flag when you’re dating? We asked mental health experts to provide some more insight.

The fight-or-flight response, love, and dating

As mentioned, it is possible that your SNS may be triggered by dating things that are not actually dangerous (but might be new, exciting, or stressful), says Dr. Chase. For instance: Seeing your cell phone light up with your new boo’s name, hearing your partner open the garage door, or even feeling your love’s hand on your lower back.

However, sometimes the fight-or-flight mode goes into action because we've landed ourselves in a potentially unsafe situation, says Dr. Chase. Stumble on your partner's secret knife collection? Math ain’t mathing about where your partner was the other night? These are all instances where the body going into fight-or-flight mode makes sense, as they suggest potentially troubling info or behavior.

“It can be challenging to differentiate whether or not the butterflies are mere signs of excitement, or signs of dangerous and protective anxiety,” Tanner says. Still, it’s not impossible.

So… how can you tell when it's a warranted response or not?

In short, by tuning into your environment, turning on your mind, and leaning on your friends. While the more primitive part of your body may not be able to assess whether something is actually dangerous, “your prefrontal cortex is equipped to suss that out,” says Tanner.

If you’re experiencing shaky hands, butterflies, or other stress response symptoms, or notice a strong gut feeling that something is off, Tanner recommends giving yourself a few minutes to quickly reflect on the situation. Start by asking yourself: Beyond the symptoms I’m currently experiencing, is there any evidence that I am physically and/or emotionally unsafe—or could be soon? If the answer is yes, get out of dodge quickly.

If the answer is no, Tanner suggests asking: Is this situation triggering something that was painful in the past? It is common for people to feel unsafe — and for their body to tell them they're unsafe—when actually what they feel is nervous about potential and/or repeated heartbreak or rejection. If the answer is no, then you may be feeling unsafe because, well, you actually are. Meanwhile if the answer is yes, Tanner suggests validating for yourself that relationships can, indeed, feel scary, but leaning into the potential connection.

If you’re in an ongoing relationship, and can’t discern why your body is reacting the way it is, Tanner suggests leaning on your community. “Ask a trusted friend or therapist what they think about the situation,” they say. “Because they aren’t looking at it through the lens of emotional intensity, they may have insight to offer that’s hard for you to access early in a relationship.”

Developing an overall awareness can help, too

Given that the physical symptoms are the same, it is not easy to differentiate between overactive fight-or-flight response and an accurate one. But “it can be particularly challenging for people with a history of relational or sexual trauma in relationships to distinguish the two,” says Tanner. After trauma, people are more likely to misinterpret and misunderstand their body chatter, they say.

But traumatic relationship history or not, it can be helpful to work with a trauma-informed therapist, somatic sex expert, or other mental health professional. “Someone who uses a somatic lens, or one that values understanding the mind-body connection, will be equipped to help you develop awareness around your stress responses,” says Tanner.

The more familiar you become with your body’s reaction to stress, the more able you’ll be able to recognize the signs that the fight-or-flight has rightfully or wrongfully been activated, so you can respond accordingly.

What to do when there’s a false alarm

In instances where you think the response has been triggered because you are in danger, you should do what you can to protect yourself. Depending on where you are, who you’re with, and what tipped you off to danger, that may entail calling 9-1-1, ringing the National Domestic Violence Hotline (800-799-7233), texting a friend to pick you up, or working with a therapist and/or case worker to develop a longer-term exit plan. (You can read more about getting out of an intimate partner violence situation here and here).

In instances where you think the response has been wrongly activated, Tanner recommends taking a moment to pause and actively deepen your breathing, which communicates to your nervous system that you’re okay. You can also try doing 10 jumping jacks, pushups, or other challenging workout moves in you’re in a space where you can easily do so. “Brief, intense bouts of exercise can move your body through the stress response cycle,” says Tanner. “You could also take a cold bath or shower, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes feelings of safety and relaxation.”

If the response (wrongly) pops up when you’re on a date or with a lover, Tanner recommends leaning into the golden rule of dating: communication. “Never underestimate the power of telling someone that you’re starting to fall for that you’re nervous,” says Tanner. “This isn’t a confession, it’s a conversation starter, and it demonstrates that you are building an emotional investment in your date.” Plus, it creates an opening for your date to comfort and reassure you.

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