Understanding ‘fight or flight’ mode and how to deal with it.
Have you noticed that when you get stressed your body tenses up? Breathing quickens? Heart pounds faster? This is as a result of the ‘fight or flight’ response being triggered. The fight or flight response, also known as the acute stress response, evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threating situations.
The fight or flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs when we feel threatened. The term ‘fight or flight’ represents the choices that our ancestors had, either to stay and ‘fight’ or run from danger- ‘flight’. In both cases, the body prepares to react to danger.
Even now, we still respond in this same way to different situations, for example, when encountering an aggressive animal. It can also occur in less dangerous situations such as when preparing to speak in front of a crowd.
Some physiological changes that occur when the fight or flight response is activated include:
- Release of adrenaline – signals organs
- Large muscles tense – preparation for action
- Rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure – increasing blood flow to muscles
- Rapid breathing – lungs take in more oxygen to prepare
- Reduced activity in the digestive system – feeling sick and/or experiencing a dry mouth
- Bladder muscles relax – to drop extra weight to flee or ‘flight’
- Perspiration – cools the body in anticipation of the heat to come
- Pale or flushed skin – blood flows to the muscles, brain and limbs is increased which may result in your face becoming pale
- Blood clotting ability increases – in preparation for possible injury, to avoid excess blood loss
- Hyper-vigilance – in order to take in more light our pupils dilate
- Racing thoughts – drawn to consuming thoughts of the worst-case scenario
After reading through the physiological changes, you can probably recall a time where you were in ‘fight or flight’ mode. These changes prime our body to cope effectively with the opposed threat and can help you perform better in high pressure situations.
However, we aren’t constantly being attacked by animals or giving presentations to large crowds. The fight or flight response can also be triggered in response to situations we perceive as threats where there is no real danger. It can stay activated for longer periods than it is necessary.
This natural response is not always well matched to our modern threats. Many people are unable to switch off their fight or flight response. This can lead to chronic low-level stress. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to health problems associated with chronic stress.
How do we deal with our fight or flight response?
A few ways to respond to your body’s fight or flight response include:
Actions of relaxation:
- Abdominal breathing
- Focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm)
- Repetitive prayer
Physical activity (exercise) this can include any form of exercise, a few examples include:
- Tai chi
Any participation in exercise is beneficial!
Those who enjoy close relationships receive emotional support that helps to sustain them at times of stress and crisis.
If you’re stressed over a work or class presentation you aren’t going to have the time to take a break and hit the tennis courts. In an immediate situation you may want to try these tips:
- Observe what you are noticing in your body and remind yourself that this is your ‘fight or flight’ mode activating.
- Try to take control of your breath by breathing in for 4 counts, holding for 2 counts and breathing out for 6 counts. Do this a few times until you feel you have regathered your breath.
- Take a moment to examine your thoughts. How likely is your worst-case scenario? Try to focus on the good in the situation or remind yourself that this will pass.
Understanding that the fight or flight response has been inherited from our ancestors and is a natural response that we can actively control, will help you bring yourself back to baseline when this response is activated.
If you find it hard to get out of fight or flight mode, we have a toolkit designed to teach you strategies on dealing with challenge and uncertainty.
Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. 2020. What Happens To Your Body During The Fight or Flight Response?. [online] Available at: <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-happens-to-your-body-during-the-fight-or-flight-response/> [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Morey-Nase, C., 2020. Understanding The Fight or Flight Response. [online] Blog.smilingmind.com.au. Available at: <https://blog.smilingmind.com.au/understanding-the-fight-or-flight-response> [Accessed 27 October 2020].
Harvard Health Publishing, 2020. Understanding The Stress Response – Harvard Health. [online] Harvard Health. Available at: <https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response> [Accessed 27 October 2020].