What is Fight Flight Response?
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Essentially this is our reaction to something that we may feel like a threat or something we are not quite comfortable with. How do we respond to this new situation? It is our response that has evolved to help us improve our chances of survival in life-or-death situations. It is a natural instinct we use to protect ourselves.
How Does It Work
Imagine you’re walking through the wilderness when you come across a lion. This would grab your attention immediately and cause the cascading release of chemicals that lead to the fight-or-flight response. The main role here is to take blood away from secondary and less important functions (digestion and immunity) and to direct it to the muscles and the brain which can be used to fight or run.
The pupils dilate in order to improve your peripheral vision and awareness, your attention narrows to keep you focussed on the immediate threat, your heart rate increases and blood vessels widen so that more blood can get around your body and your blood thickens to improve clotting in case of an injury.
Pain is reduced so that we can continue to run and fight even if we become injured. Our muscles become more powerful ready to punch and kick or to run. Our memory improves so that we can learn from the experience and avoid danger in the future. All these things together help us to escape our prey and live to fight another day.
Once we’re in safety, our body will switch to the rest and digest’ state which will enable the body to recover, digest and heal. This is why we have a fight or flight response and it is how it originally formed part of healthy psychology.
Problem With Fight or Flight
The problem with this response is that it is still the same one we had in the wild. Our lives have changed a huge amount in a short space of time and unfortunately, our bodies haven’t had the chance to catch up. Sometimes, a fight-or-flight response is still exactly what you need.
If you get into a physical confrontation, or if you’re pinned under rubble, then all that heightened strength, power, and reflexes are going to be very useful. But in other scenarios, we can interpret a situation as dangerous and react inappropriately. For example, when you’re giving a speech, having that much adrenaline is going to make life more difficult. We are out of that comfort zone.
The tunnel vision and focus that the fight or flight response gives you will make it more difficult for you to come up with creative phrases and your sensitivity to your surroundings will make you jumpy and twitchy. Meanwhile, adrenaline causes other symptoms such as shaking and this means that your audience will be able to physically tell that you’re scared. If you look nervous, then the assumption will be that you don’t have confidence in yourself or in what you’re saying and thus whatever you’re saying will be undermined.
The same is true on a date or in an interview. Again it boils down to evolution – if someone seems nervous it suggests that they are our inferiors and thus it undermines whatever it is that they’re saying and makes us less likely to take them seriously. When we panic we’re less able to make smart decisions, we’re less able to speak with authority and we come across to others as weak.
Worse is if you have a phobia or an anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from agoraphobia for instance might become worked into such a severe stress response that they begin to hyperventilate. This, in turn, can cause fainting which of course is not at all adaptive and can ultimately be crippling and prevent you from living a normal life.
Here’s another one: fight or flight actually inhibits erections. This means that if you’re very stressed then you won’t be able to get an erection as a male – which in turn is one of the key causes of impotence.
If you’re in immediate danger, why would it be useful to send blood to your penis? Of course, this may occur with new partnerships and not with every male.
Finally, the other reason that the fight or flight response can be a bad thing is that it can become chronic. This basically means that you’re in a constant ‘low level’ fight or flight response which ultimately means that you think you’re constantly in some kind of danger. This is once again a result of the difference between our evolution and our modern lifestyles.
When we were still evolving, stress was only ever acute and would be caused by things like forest fires or predators. Today though, our stress tends to last much longer and be caused by things like angry bosses, deadlines, debt, moving home, Christmas, relationships, tax, wedding planning, chronic illness, and so on.
These stresses then continue to affect us for a long time. If you’re in debt, then having dilated pupils and tense muscles are not going to help you get out of it. Moreover, the fact that your blood is being directed away from your digestion and away from your immune system means you’re more likely to get indigestion and more likely to become ill. Likewise, a constantly elevated heart rate can lead to heart problems, while constant adrenaline can eventually cause adrenal fatigue. In short, stress can take a serious toll on the body and eventually leave you feeling ill, exhausted, and broken.
Both these are psychological and physiological states that are brought about by the release of certain chemicals in your brain and body. These occur in response to physical or psychological stimuli and have an adaptive function in helping us to survive for long.
This might happen if you fall from a height for instance, or if you identify a threat in your immediate surroundings. In response to this, your brain’s salience network’ will direct your attention and trigger the release of the right chemicals.
These chemicals are made up of neurotransmitters and hormones including:
• Adrenaline (epinephrine)
• Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)
Neurotransmitters such as dopamine are chemical ‘signalers’ that are released during synaptic transmissions. These are stored in vesicles at the end of each neuron and released during communication to instruct brain cells on how to behave (modulating attention, memory, and awareness). Hormones meanwhile are released primarily into the blood and have wider-reaching and longer-lasting impacts on the body and brain. Some hormones can act like neurotransmitters too, thereby affecting our mood, attention, and memory.
You don’t really need to know all of this. Rather, you need to know what the effects are. Specifically, the fight or flight response causes:
• Accelerated heart rate
• Increased attention and focus that acts like ‘tunnel vision
• Dilation of blood vessels
• Thickening of the blood
• Tension in the muscles
• Quickened, deeper breathing
• Pupil dilation
• Enhanced memory
• Reduced digestive and immune function
• Pain reduction
• Heightened sensitivity in your senses
• Increased energy
• Increased muscle fiber recruitment
What Are Neurotransmitters?
Firstly: it’s important to recognize that no two fight or flight responses are the exact same. In other words, stress is a broad term for a large number of different experiences all caused by slightly different ratios of chemicals. For example, the stress that you feel before an exam is very different from the stress you feel when having a panic attack late at night.
Likewise, the stress that you feel in an argument with your partner is very different from the stress that you feel when you’re going down a mountain quickly. This is what can sometimes mark the difference between a positive stress response and a negative one. And perhaps the most well-publicized example of a ‘positive’ stress response is that of the ‘flow state’.
What is a Flow State?
A flow state is a state of heightened performance without many of the downsides we normally associate with stress. The most common example is in extreme sports where someone who is going down a mountain on a snowboard might find themselves subjectively experiencing the ‘slowing of time’. They are exhilarated and completely focused on what they’re doing, which allows them to react with incredible reactions and heighten their performance to incredible degrees.
Some athletes will describe similar experiences when they’re breaking records and giving their best performances on the field, track, or court; suddenly time slows down and they feel completely in tune with their bodies.
Rappers describe something similar, as do writers when they get into the zone (which is generally regarded as being a synonym for flow). If you’ve ever been in a conversation and appeared to completely lose track of time for hours while being completely engaged in what you’re saying, then that too is a sign of flow.
So what’s happening here? Ultimately it comes down to a very similar set of signals from your brain, resulting in a very similar cascade of neurotransmitters but with a few subtle differences. What you’re telling your brain in this instant is that what you’re doing is incredibly important and possibly even ‘life or death’ (as in the case of extreme sports).
At the same time though, you’re also telling your brain that you’re enjoying the experience which slightly changes the chemical profile.
Now you likely have an increase in serotonin (the feel-good hormone that numbs pain) and research suggests you also get an increase in anandamide – which is the ‘bliss’ neurotransmitter that also increases creative problem-solving.
This same neurotransmitter is associated with the use of marijuana! You probably would experience less cortisol meanwhile which is what makes us feel anxious and paranoid. So you still get the focus and the heightened performance but instead of feeling bad with it, you instead feel right at the top of your game.
Research shows us that this selection of neurotransmitters and hormones leads to something called temporal-hypofrontality. This is a state where the frontal regions of the brain actually shut down and the body begins acting more on pure instinct.
Ultimately, you become completely focused on the thing you’re doing because you believe it’s important and rewarding and you, therefore, stop second-guessing yourself. But even within the flow state, there are differences.
The way you feel when hurtling down a mountain for example is somewhat different from the way you feel when deep in conversation! Then there are other experiences that are somewhat similar to fight-or-flight. A good example is a fit of anger! When we’re angry we experience many of the same reactions but probably with an increase in testosterone and perhaps ‘substance-a’ which is a neurotransmitter associated with physical pain.
So with that in mind, what’s one strategy you can use right away to start coping with stress better is to change the way you think about your stress. Instead of trying to ‘fight’ your stress and make yourself feel calm (which can often be a fool’s errand), consider changing the nature of your stress – try to enjoy the moment more as a challenge and a learning opportunity and you can hopefully trigger a flow state.
Or perhaps instead try to get angry about the situation – anger is often viewed as a negative emotion but actually, it is highly motivating and can be useful for increasing our drive and ability to get what we want.
How do Neurotransmitters work?
Neurotransmitters are small molecules that live in the brain cells. Specifically, they are found at the end of the axons) which are tails coming off of neurons and connecting to the dendrites of other neurons. When a neuron ‘fires’ (called an action potential) energy is transferred down the axon and jumps across the synaptic gap to the dendrites of other neurons causing them to fire once they are overloaded. This is what creates our subjective experience of the world.
At the end of the axons are ‘synaptic knobs’ and at the end of these are neuro vesicles that contain neurotransmitters. Only the right neurotransmitters can fit into the appropriate receptors and they will have slightly different effects depending on where they are in the brain.
Breathe – When you feel anxiety coming over you, make sure to breathe deeply and fully, thereby activating the parasympathetic nervous system and triggering the ‘rest and digest’ state. You can try ‘equal breathing’ to this end.
View it as a challenge – To change a stress response into a flow state, try to see it as a fun challenge rather than a serious risk. This will help you to feel focused without the negative anxiety effects.
Act normal – Most importantly, don’t worry about the stress and don’t fight it – continue to act normal and let it run its course.
Employ power positions, grounding, priming, and facial feedback if you get the chance.
Breathe correctly – Breathing is important enough to appear twice on this list. It’s the title of the book after all! Whether you’re having anxiety or not, try to breathe the correct way and use abdominal breathing to improve your health and mental state.
Learn meditation – Another type of training you can do is to practice meditation and learn to have better control over your own mind.
Practice CBT – Most importantly of all, practice using CBT in order to reprogram the way you think and the way you perceive situations. This means noting down your thoughts during mindfulness meditation and it means challenging your negative thoughts. You can also use visualization and even hypothesis testing. Try facing your fears gradually and you’ll learn to stay
entirely cool in those situations in the future!
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol, and drug use problems, marital problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness.
Numerous research studies suggest that CBT leads to significant improvement in functioning and quality of life. In many studies, CBT has been demonstrated to be as effective as, or more effective than, other forms of psychological therapy or psychiatric medications.
The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. These responses are evolutionary adaptations to increase the chances of survival in threatening situations.
Overly frequent, intense, or inappropriate activation of the fight or flight response is implicated in a range of clinical conditions including most anxiety disorders. A helpful part of treatment for anxiety is an improved understanding of the purpose and function of the fight or flight response. This client information sheet describes the bodily consequences of the fight or flight response.
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