Stress Mastery

What is the “fight or flight response?”

This fundamental physiologic response forms the foundation of modern day stress medicine. The “fight or flight response” is our body’s primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to “fight” or “flee” from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.

What happens to us when we are under excessive stress?

When we experience excessive stress—whether from internal worry or external circumstance—a bodily reaction is triggered, called the “fight or flight” response. Originally discovered by the great Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, this response is hard-wired into our brains and represents a genetic wisdom designed to protect us from bodily harm. This response actually corresponds to an area of our brain called the hypothalamus, which—when stimulated—initiates a sequence of nerve cell firing and chemical release that prepares our body for running or fighting.

What are the signs that our fight or flight response has been stimulated (activated)?

When our fight or flight response is activated, sequences of nerve cell firing occur and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release cause our body to undergo a series of very dramatic changes. Our respiratory rate increases. Blood is shunted away from our digestive tract and directed into our muscles and limbs, which require extra energy and fuel for running and fighting. Our pupils dilate. Our awareness intensifies. Our sight sharpens. Our impulses quicken. Our perception of pain diminishes. Our immune system mobilizes with increased activation. We become prepared—physically and psychologically—for fight or flight. We scan and search our environment, “looking for the enemy.”

When our fight or flight system is activated, we tend to perceive everything in our environment as a possible threat to our survival. By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind—where our more well thought out beliefs exist—and moves us into “attack” mode. This state of alert causes us to perceive almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival. As such, we tend to see everyone and everything as a possible enemy. Like airport security during a terrorist threat, we are on the look out for every possible danger. We may overreact to the slightest comment. Our fear is exaggerated. Our thinking is distorted. We see everything through the filter of possible danger. We narrow our focus to those things that can harm us. Fear becomes the lens through which we see the world.

We can begin to see how it is almost impossible to cultivate positive attitudes and beliefs when we are stuck in survival mode. Our heart is not open. Our rational mind is disengaged. Our consciousness is focused on fear, not love. Making clear choices and recognizing the consequences of those choices is unfeasible. We are focused on short-term survival, not the long-term consequences of our beliefs and choices. When we are overwhelmed with excessive stress, our life becomes a series of short-term emergencies. We lose the ability to relax and enjoy the moment. We live from crisis to crisis, with no relief in sight. Burnout is inevitable. This burnout is what usually provides the motivation to change our lives for the better. We are propelled to step back and look at the big picture of our lives—forcing us to examine our beliefs, our values and our goals.

What is our fight or flight system designed to protect us from?

Our fight or flight response is designed to protect us from the proverbial saber tooth tigers that once lurked in the woods and fields around us, threatening our physical survival. At times when our actual physical survival is threatened, there is no greater response to have on our side. When activated, the fight or flight response causes a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones to pump through our body. This surge is the force responsible for mothers lifting cars off their trapped children and for firemen heroically running into blazing houses to save endangered victims. The surge of adrenaline imbues us with heroism and courage at times when we are called upon to protect and defend the lives and values we cherish.

What are the saber tooth tigers of today and why are they so dangerous?

When we face very real dangers to our physical survival, the fight or flight response is invaluable. Today, however, most of the saber tooth tigers we encounter are not a threat to our physical survival. Today’s saber tooth tigers consist of rush hour traffic, missing a deadline, bouncing a check or having an argument with our boss or spouse. Nonetheless, these modern day, saber tooth tigers trigger the activation of our fight or flight system as if our physical survival was threatened. On a daily basis, toxic stress hormones flow into our bodies for events that pose no real threat to our physical survival.

Once it has been triggered, what is the natural conclusion of our fight or flight response?

By its very design, the fight or flight response leads us to fight or to flee—both creating immense amounts of muscle movement and physical exertion. This physical activity effectively metabolizes the stress hormones released as a result of the activation of our fight or flight response. Once the fighting is over, and the threat—which triggered the response—has been eliminated, our body and mind return to a state of calm.

Has the fight or flight response become counterproductive?

In most cases today, once our fight or flight response is activated, we cannot flee. We cannot fight. We cannot physically run from our perceived threats. When we are faced with modern day, saber tooth tigers, we have to sit in our office and “control ourselves.” We have to sit in traffic and “deal with it.” We have to wait until the bank opens to “handle” the bounced check. In short, many of the major stresses today trigger the full activation of our fight or flight response, causing us to become aggressive, hypervigilant and over-reactive. This aggressiveness, over-reactivity and hypervigilance cause us to act or respond in ways that are actually counter-productive to our survival. Consider road rage in Los Angeles and other major cities.

It is counterproductive to punch out the boss (the fight response) when s/he activates our fight or flight response. (Even though it might bring temporary relief to our tension!) It is counterproductive to run away from the boss (the flight response) when s/he activates our fight or flight response. This all leads to a difficult situation in which our automatic, predictable and unconscious fight or flight response causes behavior that can actually be self-defeating and work against our emotional, psychological and spiritual survival.

Is there a cumulative danger from over-activation of our fight or flight response?

Yes. The evidence is overwhelming that there is a cumulative buildup of stress hormones. If not properly metabolized over time, excessive stress can lead to disorders of our autonomic nervous system (causing headache, irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure and the like) and disorders of our hormonal and immune systems (creating susceptibility to infection, chronic fatigue, depression, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and allergies.)

To protect ourselves today, we must consciously pay attention to the signals of fight or flight.

To protect ourselves in a world of psychological—rather than physical—danger, we must consciously pay attention to unique signals telling us whether we are actually in fight or flight. Some of us may experience these signals as physical symptoms like tension in our muscles, headache, upset stomach, racing heartbeat, deep sighing or shallow breathing. Others may experience them as emotional or psychological symptoms such as anxiety, poor concentration, depression, hopelessness, frustration, anger, sadness or fear.

Excess stress does not always show up as the “feeling” of being stressed. Many stresses go directly into our physical body and may only be recognized by the physical symptoms we manifest. Two excellent examples of stress induced conditions are “eye twitching” and “teeth-grinding.” Conversely, we may “feel” lots of emotional stress in our emotional body and have very few physical symptoms or signs in our body.

By recognizing the symptoms and signs of being in fight or flight, we can begin to take steps to handle the stress overload. There are benefits to being in fight or flight—even when the threat is only psychological rather than physical. For example, in times of emotional jeopardy, the fight or flight response can sharpen our mental acuity, thereby helping us deal decisively with issues, moving us to action. But it can also make us hypervigilant and over-reactive during times when a state of calm awareness is more productive. By learning to recognize the signals of fight or flight activation, we can avoid reacting excessively to events and fears that are not life threatening. In so doing, we can play “emotional judo” with our fight or flight response, “using” its energy to help us rather than harm us. We can borrow the beneficial effects (heightened awareness, mental acuity and the ability to tolerate excess pain) in order to change our emotional environment and deal productively with our fears, thoughts and potential dangers.

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