The fight-or-flight-response is an automatic response that our bodies have to danger. It’s what helps us to either confront the danger or run away from it. For the most part, this response is helpful and allows us to stay safe in dangerous situations.
However, there are times when the fight-or-flight-response can be really annoying. For example, when you’re stuck in a traffic jam and your body starts freaking out because it thinks you’re in danger. But, usually what you notice isn’t your body’s response, the accelerated heart rate or the shallowing breathing. What you notice is that you are irritated, super edgy, or pissed off, grumbling under your breath, cursing at other drivers, or your leg is bouncing up and down.
Or when you’re at a social event and your mind starts racing because you’re worried about what other people are thinking of you. Again, you may not notice the physical response, but notice your thoughts, the “whoulda, shoulda, coulda” line of thinking, the doubts. And if you do notice your body, it is usually the responses that feed the thoughts that people are noticing you, maybe you are sweating, the nausea, and the facial flushing.
In these situations, it would be nice if you could just turn off the fight-or-flight-response and relax! But, once the response has activated, hormones and chemicals like adrenaline, cortisol, and glucose enter our blood stream and the process is full steam ahead.
What is the fight-or-flight response?
One of my favorite descriptions of the fight-or-flight response comes from Mary Roach’s book Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. In the book, Roach describes a combat trauma management course in which corpsmen trainees role-play emergency medical care. This course is designed to simulate hyper-realistic combat situations, with loud noises, guns firing, people screaming, role-players with traumatic injuries, etc. The goal is “stress inoculation”, a phrase Roach defines as the more these trainees experience these hyper-realistic situations, activating their fight-of-flight response, or the survival stress response, repeatedly until the brain realizes they aren’t truly in danger, the calmer the corpsmen will be when in actual combat.
One of the people Roach interviews for Grunt, summarizes the fight-or-flight response as, “You become fast, strong, and dumb.”
What is happening in your body?
The adrenaline and cortisol that just got dumped into your bloodstream, increasing your lung capacity, increasing oxygen input. Your heart rate jumps up too, allowing that oxygen to be delivered throughout your body faster. The glucose means energy, and fuel to help you flee or fight. Your muscle in your legs and arms get more blood because the vessels dilate. Your digestive system screeches to a halt, which leads to the nausea, diarrhea, or constipation. And the most important part to remember? Your pre-frontal cortex shuts down. The pre-frontal cortex is the reason humans have such a large brain compared to other mammals. It is the part of the brain that helps us problem-solve, reason, and use fine motor skills, but it requires a ton of energy. So, when you brain decides you are in danger, and the blood flow is better off in your leg and arm muscles, it redirects it from the pre-frontal cortex.
This is all great and well if you are facing a snarling mountain lion, but less so when you are stuck in traffic or at a social event. And, the next time you are stressed out and it feels like your brain won’t work, remember, you are right and you can thank your fight-or-flight response.
Any information provided about medical matters is purely educational and the author is not a medical professional and is not recommending any specific intervention for any specific person or giving medical advice. Please consult your own medical provider for information about your own situation
This blog post is for informational purposes only and does not create any type of therapeutic relationship. For specific assistance, please consult your own medical and/or mental health provider.