Fight-or-Flight Response: Reaction to Stressful Situations

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Fight-or-Flight Response: Reaction to Stressful Situations

The fight-or-flight response has also been linked with panic disorders / Photo by Getty Images


Fear and stress are some of the factors that trigger a person's emotional response. Each individual reacts or feels different from other people when experiencing stressful situations especially in the presence of any danger. Some will stay calm, some will become agitated. The body's alarm system is usually triggered by these situations. Physically, our body is telling us to get ready especially when in grave danger. 

However, one of the most difficult situations to handle is to become psychologically prepared for certain stress or danger that is usually unseen. The physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something physically or mentally terrifying is called the fight-or-flight response. This tells the person to either run away to safety or stay and deal with the threat. The response is triggered by stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes.

This explains why our heart pound and our breathing quicken when facing a stressful situation. Our muscles tense and beads of sweat start to appear. The fight-or-flight response is the combination of reactions to stress that enables people to react quickly to life-threatening situations. Aside from that, our body can also overreact to stressors, such as work pressure, traffic jams, family difficulties, and many more. 


A Deeper Look at the Fight-or-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight response evolved out of the survival needs of our ancestors when they were facing dangers. According to an article by the Very Well Mind, this stress response was first described by American physiologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s as the first part of the involuntary general adaptation syndrome. Cannon found out that there's a chain of rapidly occurring reactions that are happening inside our body when facing threatening situations. 

Today, the stress response is accepted to be a part of the first stage of general adaptation syndrome that was theorized by Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist. A person's hypothalamus activates two systems of our body to produce the fight-or-flight response: the adrenal-cortical system and the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal-cortical system uses the bloodstream to initiate reactions in the body while the sympathetic nervous system uses nerve pathways. 

Additionally, the person's fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in dealing with stress and danger. This prepares our body to either fight or to stay away from the threat. It's better to be prepared in times like these to cope effectively with the danger. This can also be very helpful in simple and daily situations, whether you're at home, school, or work. 

The fight-or-flight response evolved out of the survival needs of our ancestors when they were facing dangers / Photo by Getty Images


Understanding the body's natural fight-or-flight response is one of many ways to cope with stressful or dangerous situations. You start looking for ways to relax your body and calm down when you notice that you are becoming tense. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, suggested some ways to counter the stress response. This includes visualization of tranquil scenes, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), deep abdominal breathing, yoga, and Tai Chi.


What Happens During the Fight-or-Flight Response?

As mentioned, the fight-or-flight response is triggered by the sympathetic nervous system through the release of stress hormones into the bloodstream. Previous studies found that some of the physiological changes during the response include sweating, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion or hearing loss, dilation of pupils, constriction of blood vessels, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate. 

During the process, our body releases catecholamines, including adrenaline and noradrenaline, from the sympathetic nervous systems that stimulate our adrenal glands. According to an article by the Harvard Medical School, all of the changes and the processes inside our bodies happen so fast that people aren't aware of them. This is why you are able to stay away or jump out of the path when a car is coming your before you even think about what you are doing. 

The sympathetic nerve fibers of the autonomic nervous system will be activated when a threat is perceived, which releases certain hormones from the endocrine system. This response may be triggered by several circumstances happening inside our body, such as decreased blood glucose levels (hypoglycemia), abrupt emotional upset, physical injury, blood pressure, or by pain. According to Britannica, the fight-or-flight response is characterized by several aspects like increased blood glucose concentrations, tremor, increased perspiration, anxiety, and an increased heart rate or tachycardia. 

Additionally, the fight-or-flight response has also been linked with panic disorders. It's best to seek professional help when you think your stress response is getting out of hand. Fortunately, there are several treatments for this, such as medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. Desensitization, a method of treating the disorder, takes into account the fight-or-flight response. People with panic disorders are gradually exposed to anxiety-causing stimuli in this method. During the process, they are also learning to control their panic and anxiety simultaneously. 

Other ways to help us calm down during the initial fight-or-flight response are breathing exercises and stress reducers. It will also be helpful to learn stress management techniques.



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