Breathing Principles Series - A Peek into your Fight or Flight Response
So, what exactly is stress? What is anxiety?
Both these are psychological and physiological states that are brought about by the release of certain chemicals in your brain and body. These occur in response to physical or psychological stimuli and have an adaptive function in helping us to survive for longer.
This might happen if you fall from a height for instance, or if you identify a threat in your immediate surroundings. In response to this, your brain’s ‘Salience network’ will direct your attention and trigger the release of the right chemicals.
These chemicals are made up of neurotransmitters and hormones including:
• Adrenaline (epinephrine)
• Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)
Neurotransmitters such as dopamine are chemical ‘signalers’ that are released during synaptic transmissions. These are stored in ‘vesicles’ at the end of each neuron and released during communication to instruct brain cells on how to behave (modulating attention, memory, and awareness). Hormones meanwhile are released primarily into the blood and have wider-reaching and longer-lasting impacts on the body and brain. Some hormones can act like neurotransmitters too, thereby affecting our mood, attention and memory.
You don’t really need to know all of this. Rather, you need to know what the effects are.
Specifically, the fight or flight response causes:
• Accelerated heart rate
• Increased attention and focus that acts like ‘tunnel vision’
• Dilation of blood vessels
• Thickening of the blood
• Tension in the muscles
• Quickened, deeper breathing
• Pupil dilation
• Enhanced memory
• Reduced digestive and immune function
• Pain reduction
• Heightened sensitivity in your senses
• Increased energy
• Increased muscle fiber recruitment
This in turn is a response that has evolved to help us improve our chances of survival in life-or-death situations. Imagine you’re trekking through the wild when you come across a lion. This would grab your attention immediately and cause the cascading release of chemicals that lead to the fight or flight response.
The main role here is to take blood away from secondary and less important functions (digestion and immunity) and to direct it to the muscles and the brain which can be used to fight or run. The pupils dilate in order to improve your peripheral vision and awareness, your attention narrows to keep you focused on the immediate threat, your heart rate increases, and blood vessels widen so that more blood can get around your body and your blood thickens to improve clotting in case of an injury. Pain is reduced so that we can continue to run and fight even if we become injured. Our muscles become more powerful ready to punch and kick or to sprint. Our memory improves so that we can learn from the experience and avoid danger in future.
All these things together thereby help us to escape our prey and live to fight another day. And once we’re in safety, our body will switch to the ‘rest and digest’ state which will enable the body to recover, digest and heal.
Therefore, we have a fight or flight response, and it is how it originally formed part of a healthy psychology.
The Problem with the Fight or Flight Response
The problem with this response is that it is still the same one we had in the wild. Our lives have changed a huge amount in a short space of time and unfortunately, our bodies haven’t had the chance to catch up.
Sometimes, a fight or flight response is still exactly what you need. If you get into a physical confrontation, or if you’re pinned under a rubble, then all that heightened strength, power and reflexes is going to be very useful.
But in other scenarios, we can interpret a situation as dangerous and react inappropriately. For example, when you’re giving a speech, having that much adrenaline is going to make life more difficult. The tunnel vision and focus that the fight or flight response gives you will make it more difficult for you to come up with creative phrases and your sensitivity to your surroundings will make you jumpy and twitchy. Meanwhile, adrenaline causes other symptoms such as shaking, and this means that your audience will be able to physically tell that you’re scared. If you look nervous, then the assumption will be that you don’t have confidence in yourself or in
what you’re saying and thus whatever you’re saying will be undermined.
The same is true on a date or in an interview. Again, it boils down to evolution– if someone seems nervous it suggests that they are our inferiors and thus it undermines whatever it is that they’re saying and makes us less likely to take them seriously.
When we panic, we’re less able to make smart decisions, we’re less able to speak with authority and we come across to others as weak.
Worse is if you have a phobia or an anxiety disorder. Those who suffer from agoraphobia for instance might become worked into such a severe stress response that they begin to hyperventilate. This in turn can cause fainting which of course is not at all adaptive and can ultimately be crippling and prevent you from living a normal life.
Here’s another one: fight or flight in fact inhibits erections. This means that if you’re very stressed then you won’t be able to get an erection as a male – which in turn is one of the key causes of impotence. It makes sense, if you feel that you are in immediate danger, why would it be useful to send blood to your penis?
Finally, the other reason that the fight or flight response can be a bad thing is that it can become chronic. This basically means that you’re in a constant ‘low level’ fight or flight response which ultimately means that you think you’re constantly in danger. This is once again a result of the gulf between our evolution and our modern lifestyles. When we were still evolving, stress was only ever acute and would be caused by things like forest fires or predators.
Today though, our stress tends to last much longer and be caused by things like angry bosses, deadlines, debt, moving home, Christmas, relationships, tax, wedding planning, chronic illness…
These stresses then continue to affect us for a long time. If you’re in debt, then having dilated pupils and tense muscles is not going to help you get out of it. Moreover, the fact that your blood is being directed away from your digestion and away from your immune system means you’re more likely to get indigestion and more likely to become ill. Likewise, a constantly elevated heart rate can lead to heart problems, while constant adrenaline can eventually cause adrenal fatigue.
In short, stress can take a serious toll on the body and eventually leave you feeling ill, exhausted, and broken. If you are feeling severely overwhelmed, seek professional help.