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Yikes! The Dangers of the Fight or Flight Response
Posted: 4/27/2012 | Personal Development Comments
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A friend told me that she once loved horror movies until she realized she was jumpy for hours after viewing them. Even though, rationally, she knew it was just a movie, some part of her brain (the amygdala) believed the danger was real. Her sympathetic nervous system took charge and this primal response insured my friend was ready to fight, freeze or flee if necessary. Unfortunately, it also created stress in her body that, accumulatively and over time, could cause a whole slew of negative consequences.

First described by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, symptoms of the “fight or flight,” or acute stress response, vary depending upon the person and the situation. When we sense real or imagined danger, adrenaline and stress hormones are released that cause a faster heart beat and breathing, glucose release for a surge of energy, loose bowels, dry mouth, cold and clammy extremities as well as increased sweat production. It all serves a purpose–to have us leap into action and propel us out of danger as quickly as possible.

Besides fight or flight, we may also experience “shielding,” turning our backs to danger or shielding someone else. Mothers often go into shielding mode under stress. Remember Mom holding out her arm in front of you when the car came to a sudden stop? It was her instinctive attempt to shield you from danger, even though her arm could not possibly keep you from harm in an accident.

We might also freeze like deer in headlights, a primitive impulse to hide from predators and to assess the danger and know how to respond. Have you ever found yourself holding your breath in an emotionally tense situation? When we freeze, we’re immobilized. Imagine your boss coming into your office and telling you off. You can’t really attack her, and running from the room doesn’t seem like a good option, either. Your mind goes blank and you hold your breath. Freezing is a last-ditch effort to protect yourself from harm.

The problem lies within our brain’s interpretation of danger. In everyday life there is much stimuli to throw ourselves into this adrenalized state, from sudden noise to arguments, common worry to violent images on the screen. These may not present actual physical danger but on a primal level our body reacts as if this were so.

Think back to yesterday. Can you recall how many times you felt anxious, worried, or riled up about something? Did you have to “put out a few fires?” How about your environment? Are you exposed to noise, traffic, or even running for the bus? We get used to it, but these seemingly small, stressful moments add up to serious long-term effects. We might find ourselves more argumentative and irritable, causing more stress in our relationships. It can lead to substance abuse or other more socially acceptable addictions, like zoning out in front of the television, eating or exercising obsessively. It often leads to high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, allergies, depression and other illnesses.

Living from crisis to crisis becomes habit; we develop a neurological groove of sorts that has us stay in reaction mode, most of the time. When we come from survival, we tend to see everything and everyone in our environment as potentially threatening. Not surprisingly, men and women often react differently. Men generally react with the fight response, while women are more likely to run, ask others for help and “tend and friend,” trying to diffuse the situation.

Eventually, all this reacting adds up to a mind and body completely out of balance. We probably can’t speed up our physical evolution in time to avoid the stress response, but we can support ourselves in other ways. We can be gentle and nurture our bodies with nourishing food, walking, lots of water and sound sleep. We can include essential practices like meditation and yoga, probably the most effective ways to reduce stress and restore our peace of mind. We can express our feelings with trusted friends and by journaling. If you feel overwhelmed by life, you might choose a psychotherapist or coach who can guide you to greater relaxation.

The more we focus on the moment, practice relaxing and letting go, the more tranquility we’ll feel in our lives. Over time we can train ourselves to let go more easily and experience peace more readily. Our relationships, health, energy and perspective brightens and improves. It’s empowering to know serenity is an inside job, and isn’t dependent upon our circumstances.

I’ve written in greater detail about stress and anxiety. You can read about it here.

Do you often feel the “fight, flee or flight” response? What practices have helped you relax? Please let us know your thoughts–they make a difference for all of us!


Jennifer       Posted: 5/21/2012 6:03:27 AM

I feel the fight or flight response almost daily. I have a high stress wedding business and a volatile marriage that just ended in betrayal. My heart always feels like it''s racing & I freeze or over eat, all in an effort to try to self soothe. However, these don''t help! Take a minute for yourself. Even meditating for 5 minutes can change things. If you can, walk! Again, even a 10 minute walk can do wonders- it emulates the flight response, so you feel like you''re doing something to get away from what''s stressing you. If you''ve got the fight response, punch a punching bag or pillow, or air punch. Not very zen but it makes you feel like you''re fighting what''s stressing you. stretching, hugging and laughing all help too.

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