The fight-or-flight response, also known as the stress response, refers to a physiological reaction that occurs within the body in situations of perceived threats. This occurs when we come across something that is terrifying- either mentally or physically. It could be the fear of addressing an audience during a presentation, or a vague perception of something you see in the dark. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepares your body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
So What Exactly Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?
When the body perceives a threat, it immediately prepares all the systems for action-either to face the threat or flee. This is termed as the fight or flight response of the body. When faced with stress, the body’s sympathetic nervous system comes into action due to the sudden release of hormones. This creates a sensation we call fear or anxiety. The stress could be as specific as meeting a tiger in the forest or as vague as the uncertainty about the future.
Imagine you are ready to give a speech in front of a large audience. Your heart starts pounding and your limbs start trembling. The mouth becomes dry and the skin becomes cold with goose-bumps. You can’t think clearly. The lights appear too bright and the worst of all, you absolutely forget how to begin the speech. This is the same response which our body gives under all situations of perceived threats. Physiologically, the body reactions as follows:
- The heart rate increases along with an increase in the blood pressure.
- Breathing becomes faster and shallow.
- All the stored sugars in the body are released to provide energy.
- Arteries feeding the brain, digestive tract and other organs constrict to further increase the blood flow to the muscles.
- The skin vessels constrict and sweating increases.
- Extra adrenaline is released in the blood.
- The entire body becomes tense and ready to take an action.
You can probably think of a time when you experienced the fight-or-flight response.
The importance of understanding the Fight-or-Flight Response
It is important for us to understand as to how our body reacts to certain situations and what threats we face when we are in a precarious situation. Although by activating the fight or flight response, the body is ready for action. You are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat. If the response is short-term, the body will return to normal soon after the threat has gone. In cases where the threat is life threatening, the fight-or-flight response can actually play a critical role in your survival. By gearing you up to fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response makes it more likely that you will survive the danger.
Unfortunately, many threats of today never go away- threats like problems with work, relationships, finances etc. This long term response is called stress and is the number one cause of chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, heart diseases, chronic indigestion and a suppressed immune response. An important thing to remember is that while the fight-or-flight response happens automatically, it does not mean that it is always accurate. This means that sometimes we respond even when there is no real threat. Phobias are good examples of how the fight-or-flight response might be triggered in the face of a perceived threat. A person who is terrified of heights might begin to experience the acute stress response when he has to go the top floor of a skyscraper to attend a meeting. His body might go on high alert as his heart beat and respiration rate increase. When this response becomes severe, it may even lead to a panic attack.
How to handle the body’s Fight-or-Flight response?
Understanding the body’s natural fight-or-flight response is one way to help cope with such situations. When you notice that you are becoming tense, you can start looking for ways to calm down and relax your body. Here are a few ways to manage the response:
- Deep and slow abdominal breathing can stimulate the body’s parasympathetic nervous system which helps the body to ‘rest, relax and digest ’.This lowers the blood pressure, decreases the heart rate and stimulates the digestive glands.
- Daily practice of yoga asanas, pranayama and deep relaxation in savasana (corpse pose) using autosuggestion is very beneficial in preventing the harmful effects of constant stress.
- The ultimate solution to stress is to eliminate its root causes completely. Remember that stressors are perceived as threats to the body. The practice of positive thinking eliminates the fears and anxieties to a great extent.
- Daily meditation keeps the mind in balance even in the presence of dangers. Even a 10 minute sitting and slowing down the bodily functions can go a long way in healing and restoring the health of all organs and tissues.