Fight-or-Flight Response: What is it and How Does it Work?
December 01, 2021

Fight-or-Flight Response: What is it and How Does it Work?

Fight-or-Flight Response

While stress is often viewed as a negative thing, it is important for our survival as human beings. It helped our ancestors avoid physical dangers, as well as survive life-threatening situations like predator attacks.

What stress does is send signals to the body, making it think that it is in danger. It then triggers the fight-or-flight response that gets you ready to either face the threat or flee to safety.

What is the fight-or-flight response?

Also referred to as acute stress response, the fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs when a person feels frightened or terrified. Perceived threat or danger activates the sympathetic nerve fibers of the autonomic nervous system, triggering a release of certain hormones. These prepare the body to either face and confront the threat (fight) or flee and run away (flight).

The fight-or-flight response was first described in the 1920s by American psychologist and neurologist Walter Bradford Cannon. He realized that an automatic series of fast-acting reactions that happened inside the body helped to assemble what it needed to deal with threatening situations.

Today, this response is now recognized as the first stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome (physiological changes in the body as a response to stress).

What happens in the body during fight or flight?

As previously mentioned, the body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated when a threat or danger is perceived. The ANS is responsible for regulating and controlling certain body processes without any conscious effort or recognition. It sends signals that tell the body to get ready for threats in various ways.

Here are some of the things that can happen during stress response or fight or flight.

  • Increased heart rate and blood pressure – Both your respiration and heartbeat increase in the face of any threat or danger. This provides your body the oxygen and energy required to fuel a quick response.
  • Tense muscles – As stress hormones circulate throughout your body, your muscles may become tense, causing shaking or trembling. Muscle tension and a rush of adrenaline can also put extra energy in the muscles, which may cause them to feel twitchy.
  • Pale or flushed skin – During times of threat or danger, the blood flow to key areas (brain, muscles, arms, and legs) increases while the flow to the surface areas is reduced. This can cause your face to appear paler than normal, or flushed as blood flows or rushes to your brain and head.
  • Dilated pupils – This happens as your body prepares itself to be more aware during times of stress. Your pupils are likely to dilate to let in more light, allowing you to see better or get a view of your surroundings.
  • Dry mouth – Both stress and anxiety can negatively affect your salivary glands, resulting in less saliva production. This can cause dry mouth, or in some cases, a sticky feeling or a bad taste in the mouth.

These reactions vary since every body responds to stress differently. In most cases, it can take about 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to its normal state after you become aware that the threat no longer exists.

Therapy and stress management techniques can also help you go back to a more balanced state, especially if the nervous system is stuck in fight or flight mode.

Why is the fight-or-flight response important?

The fight-or-flight response is designed to help us through threatening circumstances by preparing the body to either fight or flee. It is also important to keep in mind that both real and imaginary threats can trigger the said response. It can also be activated from mental and psychological stress, like thinking about your work or an important event that is just about to happen.

The fight-or-flight response gets your body ready, so you can handle the pressure better. The stress response created by the situation is also beneficial, as it helps you to effectively deal with whatever it is that is worrying you.

There are cases where stress can motivate you to do well at work or school, and escape or survive life-threatening situations. It helps make sure that your body is mobilized when threats are present.

The fight or flight is an automatic response, but it is not necessarily accurate. It can sometimes be activated even without a real threat or danger. Phobias, for instance, can falsely trigger your fight-or-flight response. Its constant activation can take a toll on your body and may sometimes lead to anxiety, digestive problems, and other side effects associated with chronic stress.

What about the fight, flight, or freeze response?

When the body is neither fighting nor flighting, it is likely in a “freeze” mode. It is also referred to as attentive immobility, causing your mind and body to enter a hyper-vigilance state.

You are on edge, but instead of running away or confronting the threat, you stay completely immobile, numb, or unable to move. It can cause:

  • Muscle tension
  • A drop in heart rate
  • Physical immobility
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sudden exhaustion
  • Feeling blank

As you are unable to respond, you may feel detached or even dissociate, as if you are not a part of your body. This response, however, can have benefits, as it enables you to block out a terrifying experience that may be too difficult to process. It can also calm your body, which can then help you handle an overwhelming event more easily.

The freeze response can occur together with other responses. You might freeze and flee or vice versa. And once this stress response is over, you may play the situation over and over in your head, feel stupid, angry, or guilty, or even come up with the things you should have done or said after a few days.

How to cope with the effects of stress response

One important way to cope is to thoroughly understand your own fight, flight, or freeze response. When you start to notice symptoms like muscle tension or rapid heartbeat, there are things you can do to relax your body. You can also benefit from thinking about the bigger picture when you start feeling anxious or terrified over something that is not an actual threat or danger.

Slowing down definitely helps, so you can become more aware of your surroundings and understand what is truly happening. This can help you relax and regain your sense of control. Here are some ways to cope with an intense stress response, as well as manage stress.

Practice relaxation techniques

Activities that promote relaxation can calm your mind and body, while also relieving symptoms of anxiety, as well as sleep problems. It can also ease the effects of stress on your body, like making your muscles feel less tense and more flexible.

Here are some examples of relaxation techniques:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga
  • Tai-chi
  • Progressive muscle relaxation (tensing and relaxing each muscle group)
  • Taking a walk or doing a relaxing activity

Build and nurture social relationships

Healthy social support can help reduce your extreme psychological and physiological responses to perceived threats or danger. Having trusted friends and loved ones to turn to in times of distress provides a sense of protection, which can then improve your mental health and ability to combat stress.

Engage in physical activity

Exercise releases endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. It can help lift your mood, as well as reduce the negative effects of stress. There is also the benefit of helping you relax, increasing self-confidence, and lowering symptoms of anxiety and mild depression. All of these can give you a sense of command over your life and body.

Know when to seek professional help

If you have an overactive fight-or-flight response or feel like you’re in this constant state, consider seeing a mental health professional. This is especially true if you’re always feeling on edge and if the stress is interfering with your daily life. A licensed therapist can help you determine the cause of these emotions and create a plan for managing stress.

Therapy is also particularly important if you have a history of anxiety or trauma. If you feel terrified of non-threatening situations, a mental health professional can help you find ways to cope. Working with a therapist on Calmerry can help uncover the underlying causes of your fears or worries and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Don’t hesitate to seek help or undergo therapy if you can’t relax or if you experience persistent fear and worry. The same is also true if daily, non-threatening circumstances like bills, emails, or traffic trigger your fight-or-flight response.