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Neurodiversity and Fight-or-flight Response: Being Regulated, Not Cured, and Fighting for the Light

Since beginning to see my occupational therapist a little over one year ago, I’ve learned ways to regulate my nervous system. But that doesn’t mean I’m no longer triggered. That I no longer have hard days. That I’m cured. 

Make no mistake, I’m eternally grateful for occupational therapy and for my occupational therapist (OT) in particular. But even with all of the work she’s done with me and all of the things I’ve learned, I still dissociate. And I still come through fighting or fleeing. 

I find it important to make the distinction that being regulated doesn’t mean being cured. And that being neurodivergent is nothing I need to be cured from. 

I will always be highly sensory. It’s a gift. I will also always think differently. Also a gift. It’s the severe, life threatening fight-or-flight response that I need to extract from my life. From my body. And the only way to do so is for my body to be regulated. 

Learning to regulate my sensitive nervous system has saved my life, but I have to work hard and follow a sensory diet to keep myself regulated every day. I have to stay present and to be aware of my body’s needs. To engage my senses in healthy ways. To make sure I don’t become over- or under-stimulated. To stay in my body. It’s daily. Hourly. Endless. And sometimes I veer off track. Get tired or distracted. Caught off guard. And when I do, I still experience a fight-or-flight response. 

Like yesterday. I spent the morning writing, exercising and feeling joy. I made myself an egg sandwich for lunch and then was going to hop into the shower before going to occupational therapy. My husband had texted me that he was coming home for lunch; because he knows not to just show up and surprise me. He walked in the door and we kissed lovingly. I sat down at the table to eat my egg sandwich on gluten-free bread while engaging in a conversation with him. We were happy. We were in love. 

But as my true opposite, he was craving something more than my bland egg sandwich, so he pulled out the red onion and jalapeño to make himself some spicy eggs. As we were talking, I felt the smell of the onion and jalapeño creep toward me. So I got up and moved to the other side of the room to finish eating. Still loving. Still regulated. But then once in the shower, the strong smell found me. It crept into my body. I couldn’t get it out. And before I knew it, I was overstimulated. Overwhelmed. And losing control. 

The smell immediately took over my thinking, speaking and motor skills. I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t talk. I was shaking. Clumsy. And fleeing. Fortunately, I had my things packed and ready to go, so I grabbed them and ran to my car. Screaming, Goddammit, as I ran. I was so triggered. So defeated. I had been so content. And now my entire system was disrupted. 

Once in my car, away from the smell, I was able to begin thinking. Fight smell with smell, I thought, so I grabbed my lavender essential oil. First I smelled it. Then I applied it everywhere. Even under my nose. I sprayed my Bach Rescue Remedy stress relief spray on my tongue. I took some medical marijuana. I ate two Good Day Calm Chocolate magnesium supplements. I drank cold water. I turned on my brainwave activation music. I crossed my arms like the top of an eagle pose. And I finally started to come back. 

Almost as soon as I began feeling regulated, I felt the remorse wash over me. The shame. The sadness that I had possibly upset my husband while triggered. I recalled saying, Goddammit, on my way to the car, but who knows what I said while still in the house. In my fighting and fleeing and confusion, I had snapped at him. Made it so he had to get off of his work phone call. Probably confused him. Although he knows when I’ve been triggered all too well by now. I sent him an apologetic text as I was still too shaky to speak. And thankfully, he wasn’t upset; just worried about me.

Before I began working with my OT, this is what my life was like. All day, every day. The only difference was that then, I didn’t know what was happening to me. At least now, I know it was the smell that triggered me. And I know what to do to help myself. But it still happens. It still comes out of nowhere. Sneaks up on me and attacks. My forever assailant. But it’s no longer constant. I’m no longer living in it as I was the 23 years before I began working with my OT. 

So if you are sensory and experience fight-or-flight response, my heart goes out to you, and I hope you find an OT to work with who can help you as much as mine has helped me. But it’s an ongoing battle. Sometimes a struggle. An everyday fight. 

dark forest with trees and sunshine
Photo by Kristine Weilert on Unsplash

But it’s a good fight. One worth fighting. Because through the dark is the light and the love that lives inside of you that you are so often too distracted to see. 

Fight to find the light. To find the safe space inside of yourself. You can do it, my fellow sensory warriors. I know you can. And if you tire, know you are not alone. For I am always right there, fighting beside you.

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Neurodiversity and Fight-or-flight Response: Being Regulated, Not Cured, and Fighting for the Light

Jenna Grace

Jenna Grace is a neurodivergent writer and educator with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder (SPD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety disorder (SAD) diagnoses. She writes and speaks about topics including neurodiversity and SPD in order to help others and to explore new meaning. Visit her website or Twitter, @jennagracewrite.

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APA Reference
Grace, J. (2019). Neurodiversity and Fight-or-flight Response: Being Regulated, Not Cured, and Fighting for the Light. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Aug 2019
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