The fight or flight response is a concept developed by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon. It is our body’s automatic reaction that prepares us to confront or run away from perceived danger.
It’s automatic because mother nature created us to react that way. It begins in the amygdala, an almond-sized gland near our temple. When it senses danger, it triggers a neural response in the hypothalamus, which in turn triggers the pituitary gland, which then releases hormones and activates the adrenal gland.
Our heart rate increases, our breathing changes dramatically, blood is directed to our muscles and limbs, our pupils dilate, and we’re ready for action.
In this state, our rational mind takes a back seat to our emotional mind. We are focused on looking for danger.
So what is danger?
Well, if you’re in a jungle and a lion comes towards you, that’s certainly a dangerous situation to be in. When we’re in physical danger, we should be very grateful for the chemical responses that take place to protect us.
However most of the danger we encounter is perceived emotional danger. Certainly some emotional danger can be very real with severe consequences. Usually though, the consequences are not as dire as your imagination makes them out to be.
You have to get up in front of a group of people to give a presentation. Just thinking about it makes you sweat, your breath gets short, your chest tightens up, your palms sweat, and there’s no saliva in your mouth.
You’re driving your car and someone cuts you off and you’re really annoyed. You drive faster so that you can get beside them at the next traffic light to tell them (or show them with your angry face), that you’re not impressed. You can feel the blood rushing through your body, and your grip on the steering wheel is vice like.
You’re thinking about a conversation you just had, and you didn’t stand up for yourself. So now you’re going through a different version in your mind. The conversation you wish you had. You’re now saying what you wanted to say. They don’t take it well, and you then tell them what you really think of them.
You’re lying in bed going over and over a problem that you think you may encounter in the morning, and it worries you. Pretty soon you’re sweaty, on edge, and tense.
A research study quoted in Huffpost in 2015 found that…”85% of what subjects worried about never happened, and with the 15 percent that did happen, 79 percent of subjects discovered either they could handle the difficulty better than expected, or the difficulty taught them a lesson worth learning. This means that 97 percent of what you worry over is not much more than a fearful mind punishing you with exaggerations and misperceptions.”
Even with imaginary conversation or events…those that haven’t happened…the amygdala kicks in and puts us into a fight or flight mode. Though there’s no physical danger but our chemistry kicks in as though we’re facing a starving lion.
In the state of fight or flight, our interpretation of a comment, a look, a gesture, can be totally distorted, and we may react in a way that in the light of day, we realise was totally inappropriate.
In the long term, the health issues related to a being in a constant state of readiness to deal with danger can be significant. It can lead to high levels of stress, headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, inability to relax, burnout, and depression. And then there’s the impact on relationships.
We need to learn how to recognise the signals of fight or flight activation, so that we can avoid over-reacting to events and fears that are not life threatening.
Then we need to find and implement stress releasing techniques.
As the great American author Mark Twain said “I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, a few of which actually happened.”