Understanding The Amazing Flight or Fight Response

What is the Flight or Fight Response? Can you Stop it?

Understanding The Amazing Flight or Fight Response

This is a fascinating topic to me since I have experienced it so many times in my life. Many times I did not understand what was happening or why. However, understanding what is going on will help get you past it and helps you cope with all the changes that seem to occur almost instantaneously.

So what exactly is Flight or Fight Response? It is defined in different ways. In laymen terms, it is an uncontrolled response to fear or pain where the body goes into self-protection mode automatically. The fear that activates this response can be perceived or real. There is couple of other responses that can be connected to Flight or Fight response, known as Freezing or Sacrifice, I will discuss those later.

In more technical terms, this response is a triggered response to our primitive survival instincts where the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system that changes how our body works, feels and deals with things. The higher the threat the bigger the response. When perceived a threat, the autonomic nervous system are activated and the sympathetic nervous system pumps epinephrine (adrenaline), which prepares the body to challenge or flee from a perceived or real threat. The "fight or flight response is our body's primitive, automatic, inborn response that prepares the body to "fight" or "flee" from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival.

That is why in life or death situations, the response is so severe that it shocks not only us but others who witness it. The sudden surge of stress hormones, adrenaline and other body actions all enable super human like strength and reflexes that is sometimes called a miracle. The stories of a woman lifting a car off her baby or a man lifting a plane on a crash site to save the pilot. These are actually the amazing effects of the Flight or Fight response in action. In war time, some people are said to do heroic acts of unbelievable tales, often accomplished with the help of this survival response. People are often asked "What were you thinking when you did that?" The common response is "I was not thinking", I just did it. The thinking part of the brain stops and that survival, action part of the brain, takes over.

Another definition that explains this well is, after the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

All of these changes happen so fast that people are not aware that they are occurring. In fact, the internal and instinctual wiring is so efficient, that once the amygdala and hypothalamus kick start and ring the bell, the reactions happen before the brain's visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That's why people are able to jump out of the path of a car before they can think about what they are doing.

As the name implies, this response prepares the body to Fight for your life or run for your life. In primitive times, running may have been the only way to survive a superior adversary and fighting would only assure certain death. During all this, our rational mind is disengaged and our current concern is focused on fear, not remembering facts. You are not concerns with making clear thought out decisions and thinking about the consequences of those choices. You are hyper focused on short-term survival in the moment.

Much of the symptoms of this response are the same things that happen when someone take a stimulant (drug) like Cocaine or Methamphetamines. (lack of pain, super strength, heightened awareness or paranoid, sweating, speed reaction and other responses)

Some changes that occur during the Fight or Flight are numerous, can cause various responses and they tend compound as they all interact with each other. I will discuss some of these responses or reactions below. Remember these things all happen within seconds and most people never know what is going on or why.

-- All our senses enhance and sharpen, we become hyper vigilant, alert, stronger, see better and our reflexes, reactions and responses become immediate, reactive without thought and muscle memory happens without thinking(like running, jumping or fighting), all being designed with survival in mind and automatically without time or ability to think. Brain activity changes: we think less and react more instinctively for survival. This is why training and practice is so important, since we revert back to muscle memory and gross motor skills.

-- Our hairs stand on end, goosebumps (Cutis anserina: a temporary change in the skin due to tensing of little muscles, caused by cold, fear, or excitement) - the added primitive benefit to this was when the hair stands up you look bigger, more threatening and making us more sensitive to our environment, movement or danger. The old saying "the hairs on the back of neck stood up". Or when you meet a dog that appears aggressive or fearful, their hair stand up on the backs.

The medical term is cutis anserine (cutis means skin and anser means goose) Other medical terms for goosebumps are horripilation, piloerection, or the pilomotor reflex. Each of these terms describes a temporary change in the skin from smooth to bumpy, most commonly developing after exposure to cold.

Horripilation (hor-rip-i-la-tion) or Cutis anserina (cutis anse-rina)

Another term for goosebumps is "Piloerection" (Pilo-erection) Erection of the hair of the skin due to contraction of the tiny arrectores pilorum muscles that elevate the hair follicles above the rest of the skin and move the hair vertically, so the hair seems to "stand on end."

-- The Hippocampus part of the brain cements the threat into Long Term memory so it can be recalled quickly for future survival.

-- Lungs (bronchioles) dilate to allow for greater oxygen intake

-- Spleen contracts pumping out white blood cells and platelets in preparation of possible physically injury.

-- When blood vessels on the skin begin to constrict (goose bumps), it also reduces blood flow to skin helping to prevent blood loss from injury that may occur during the encounter. Blood is needed to operate the fight or flight response. However the sweat glands open to aid in external cooling (sweating) which also causes chills, to help cool our system that is now in high output mode. Some people may recognize this as looking clammy and pale. The skin goes pale as the blood flows away and travels to other muscles. Blood is diverted from the brain causing light headedness or dizziness and blood leaving the stomach can cause a feelings of butterflies or nausea. Remember hearing a person was so scared they were white as a ghost.

-- Slowing of time, seeing things in slow motion and or time slows and almost stands still. The traumatic event seems to take forever, even if in reality it happens in seconds.

-- Hyper alertness occurs as chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. These patterns of nerve cell firing and chemical release causes our body to undergo a series of very dramatic and immediate changes.

-- Pain tolerance goes up so not to interfere with the fight or flight actions. This is commonly seen in people using drugs when police try to arrest them. Normal pain compliance techniques are ineffective, hitting with a baton does not seem to hurt the suspect, so taking a suspect into custody, especially if they are under the influence of a stimulant (cocaine, methamphetamines, or speed) takes more people and great force than normal.

-- Gross motor skills like running, jumping, fighting or attacking are at peak performance, while fine and complex motor skills are lost. This is why it is important to train for gross motor skills since if you train for fine or complex motor skills you will not be able to perform them during a critical incident. Above 115 BPM fine motor skills deteriorate and at about 155 BPM complex motor skills deteriorate. In any flight or fight situation your BPM will be above 200, so you can expect loss of fine and complex motor skills.

-- Pupils dilate (open wide like when taking a stimulant) so we can see more clearly and take in more light in darkness, we are able to see more clearly and focus on things directly in front of us and tend to lock onto the threat, also known as tunnel vision. This causes our Peripheral Vision to decrease and allows us to focus all attention on our adversary and not concerned with the view around us.

-- Hearing is changed, loud sounds are muffled and a loss of hearing appears to happen. This hearing loss is known as auditory exclusion or tunnel hearing. Again blood is taken away from everything except large muscles used to fight or flee.

-- Heart rate jumps from resting at 60 BPM to a whopping 200, 250 or 300 BPM. The heart pump rate goes from pumping one gallon a minute to five gallons per minutes. Coronary arteries dilate while other arteries constrict to maximize blood pressure while veins open out to ease the flow of blood back to the heart. Blood pressure sky rockets. The knees will sometime get weak from all the blood rushing to other muscles. Fingers and toes will tingle from lack of blood, much like what happens when you get cold, the body will sacrifice outer limbs to keep blood to more important and vital organs. The old saying, scared me so bad my knees buckled.

-- Breathing increase rapidly to provide more oxygen to the large muscles allowing them to work harder, faster and stronger. The throat and nostrils enlarge and breathing is sped up to get more air in the system. The deeper breathing also helps us to scream louder and maybe intimidate our adversary.

-- Sugar gets dumps as glucose from the liver it is metabolized for instant energy. Sugar high, feeling of euphoria.

-- The digestive system shuts down, blood vessels constrict to shut down non-essential body systems. This also creates "dry mouth" caused by the reduction of saliva which is part of the digestive system. Pooping or pissing your pants can also occur since the body is voiding unnecessary weight, making you lighter to move faster and this is another non critical body need. Some say in primitive times this could also be done to warn, dissuade or distract our adversary. Old time lie detectors used rice in the mouth to see if someone was lying. Since they knew when someone lies, their heart rates goes up, the get red faced, and their mouth goes dry. If the rice remained dry, you were lying.

-- The brain sends a signal to dump Endorphins into the body. This not only makes you feel good, natural high, it is also used as the body's natural painkillers, this enables you to fight even if hurt and continue to run without worrying about pain distracting you in your survival efforts.

-- Survival instincts take control. Your normal judgment system is suppressed and your more primitive responses take over. Some describe this as maternal instincts when a mother protects her cubs. In a fight for your life, action will save you, so there no time for deep thought or analyzing.

-- Leg and hand tremors, tingling of finger and toes loss of fine motor skills, all blood leaves these areas and rushed to large fighting and running muscles. With all the blood, rich in chemicals to stimulate, if the large muscles are not used tremors will occur in the larger muscles. Many times I have been in a high risk situation with my gun pointed at a suspect not knowing what would happen next and I remember my legs shaking uncontrollably. Sometimes after these incidents were stabilized, I would just take off up the road for a run to try and use up the massive amounts of adrenaline in my system and get rids of the tremors or shakes. Those that don't understand this phenomena will think the shaking is a sign of fear, when in fact it is the flight or fight response doing what it is designed to do.

-- Memory loss, also called Critical incident amnesia. During all of this fast and rapidly evolving process a person can experience sensory overload which can cause them to forget many facts on what happened and may make them focus or fixate on one particular event. Many will see this as guilt or trying to hide something, but it is a normal event during a life or death situation where the flight or fight response was activated. The good thing is, this memory loss is normally temporary and will return within a short time, maybe a couple of days after the event. Like with many high stress trauma situations memory loss or the inability of the body to transfer events into long term memory will occur. Many times car accident victims do not remember the accident. The greater the stress or traumatic event, the greater the potential for memory problems to occur. This is why it is important not to give any statement after a critical life or death encounter. If you leave something out it can be used later to say you lied or tried to hide this information.

NOTE: "Immediately after the threat is over or if the threat is prolonged, you can experience a series of side effects like dizziness, trembling, nausea, sweating, urge to urinate, chills (shivering), hyperventilation, craving a drink of water, diarrhea, upset stomach, and inability to relax. Other reactions to this response can be hypersensitive, paranoid, self-conscious, vulnerable, anxious, scared, irritable, mad, sadness, afraid, numb, uncaring, alone, untrusting of others and poor memory. Many of these symptoms can be connected or related to PTSD.

I mentioned earlier that the other actions associated with Flight or Fight is Freezing or Shielding. Sometime when this response is activated, people will Freeze. This freeze can be called the startle response or can be caused by a lack of preparation, being in their white zone (unprepared) so they panic and go to their black zone and freeze. Or it can be part of the Flight or Fight response used to evaluate, not move in order to hide or not give away your position, maybe to evaluate if your adversary has seen you, to enable you to hear better as you remain motionless or used to wait for a better time to attack or flee. This can been seen in other animals like deer or rabbits when they are caught in the glare of headlights, they tend to freeze and evaluate what to do, many time to their detriment. A horse will sometime freeze in bright light since it blinds them due to their extremely sensitive night vision ability. When a prey animal is blinded, they do not know if they are moving into danger, so they will freeze, likely part of their Flight or Fight response.

As for the Shielding response, it can be to protect yourself, cover your head or fetal position to protect your vital organs like during a bear attack, or to shield a loved one or child, or use your body to shield others like when someone jumps on a grenade or jumps into traffic to push someone to safety. Both can be part of the Flight or Fight response.

So when you confront someone who is angry, red faced, cold and clammy skin, signs of a dry mouth, increased breathing rates, extreme focus and jitteriness from tense muscles, you can expect them to be in Flight or Fight Response mode. How does this help you? You know they are not thinking clearly or logically, that they are in response/survival mode and may not respond to reason or logic. There actions may, in fact and maybe should, put you into your Flight or Fight mode.

And when you find yourself in this mode, you may be able to cope more effectively and use these uncontrolled responses to your advantage. You will be able to slow your breathing, which will lower your heart rate, which will allow some functions to return to normal, like thinking and planning versus letting your survival automated response take charge.

In conclusion, this natural and expected response is a master in protecting yourself from yourself. Without it we would think, evaluate and over analyze a critical life or death situation, which would lower our chances of surviving. Animals that survive have learned over time that the reaction gene keeps you alive in critical situation life or death situation.

In natural selection, the spooky gene animals that live, pass on that gene and the smart thinking gene that keeps killed, does not pass on that gene. There is a time for thinking and a time for action. When our primal functions decide to enact our fight or flight response, it does so from information and clues we see, feel or suspect and then it acts. It does not wait for use to decide.

In life we pay more attention to danger and remember the bad better than the good. Over time evolution has learned that it is better to remember threats, bad and danger since that will keep you alive.

The next time you feel fear, remember the symptoms of the flight or fight response and see if you recognize what is taking place. It may not extreme, if the fear is not extreme, but you will see get some of the response actions and you will know and understand what and why this is happening. And don't forget when you work with animals or kids, they experience the same things and you can make it worse or better depending on how you response or act.

Fight or Flight Response to Fear

Both in the military and in police work the knowledge of this response system is critical to your survival.

Superman, super human, unbelievable strength and other words are often used to describe this response. Briefly, when we, as humans, perceive a severe or extreme threat, this fight or flight response kicks into action automatically. We can't stop it and we can't prevent these automatic responses from happening.

Things that go into action when faced with extreme fear is the heart rate jumps to over 200 BPM, this to pump large amounts of oxygen rich blood to our major muscles, anticipating our need to fight or run (flight). Our vision narrows so we can focus on the threat, our hearing shuts down to prevent loud or distracting sounds, blood is blocked off from non-essential body parts and functions like fingers and toes, the digestive system stops working since it is not essential to surviving, endorphins and chemicals are dumped into the body to help in different areas such as strength, power, speed, vision, hearing, reflexes and reactions. Sometime the bladder or intestines void (dump) all in an involuntary instant (Hence the old saying: He got the poop scared out of him). All of this is designed to increase your chances to survive.

Although this system is very effective and efficient, it has its drawbacks. Slowing down, moving back to normal speed, getting rid of all the hormones, chemicals and adrenalin that is now in the system and not being used.

When this response kicks in it prevents some of the other body functions. You lose dexterity, lose hearing, lose vision and lose difficult and complex thinking ability, blood is redirected to large muscle groups and everything is re-directed to fight or flight functions used to help you survive.

Side Note: Often after cops have just been in a shooting, a high risk incident which triggers the Fight or Flight, they will lock onto the threat and will not hear other cops, sirens and cannot see anything but the bad guy or threat, since their hearing has shut down (auditory exclusion, tunnel hearing) and their eyes lock on the threat (loss of peripheral vision, tunnel vision), they may appear to be locking in a trance. Some cops, who are trained properly, are trained to approach cops, who were just in a shooting, from the rear, slowly and place their hands on the officers and be ready for the officer to swing or turn their gun on you, so you approach in a way not to startle the officer and ready for them to react, and to let him know others are present, since they may not have the ability to hear or see other things around them. Being aware of these automatic responses should make you more aware and perhaps enable you to notice what you do when you get scared and if you focus on this you can change, modify or control your actions.

The Science of Stress

To understand the stress response, we must possess a fundamental knowledge not only of psychology but of physiology as well. - George Everly

Have you ever heard stories of people displaying almost superhuman-like powers when confronted with an emergency situation?

Here is the story Sarah shared in class one day: Sarah raised her hand and told of a time when her mother and sister were out working on their farm. Her mother was driving a big farm machine designed to cut the hay that was growing in their field. She didn't see the youngster playing in the tall wheat stocks.

Accidentally, she ran over her young daughter with this big farm machine. Noticing the unusual sensation as she struck her daughter, she stopped the loud engine and hurried off to see what she had run over. Realizing it was her daughter, she panicked not knowing what to do. There was no one around to help. In a moment of extreme alarm, she lifted the very heavy machine off her daughter and pulled her out with one mighty motion. Once she pulled her child out from underneath the machine, she picked her up, and ran all the way back to the farmhouse to call for help.

Afterwards, the mother collapsed from exhaustion, unable to generate any energy. In those few moments of her daughter's peril, she had become superwoman.

How can we explain this super-human response that releases power and strength beyond anything we have imagined or previously experienced? What physical and psychological factors are responsible for these amazing abilities?

The Science of Stress

In the last 50 years we have seen a surge of research on stress. Chapters three and four provide a scientific foundation on principles, theories and models of stress to help you understand the physiology and psychology of stress. Discovering what actually happens in your body and your mind will help you understand the mechanics behind the stress prevention and management skills you will be learning.

This knowledge on the science and theory of stress is captivating and provides strong, credible support for understanding why and how stress management techniques work.

Based on this knowledge you will come to understand that you use good stress management skills not just because they feel good, but because they are good science, good medicine.

Why do you feel stress in the first place? What is the purpose of this complex interaction of nerves, muscles, hormones, organs and systems that leads to such unpleasant symptoms as sore muscles, headaches, feelings of emotional upset and a host of other side effects? To answer these questions, we need to go back a few thousand years to see what life was like back then. This will help us understand how our bodies are programmed to respond to threat and danger.

Stress and the Big Bear

Put yourself in the following imaginary scenario: Imagine that you and I live in a place and time where we find no trace of modern conveniences. We have no comfortable homes, no telephones or television, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, no cars to move us around, none of our modern day comforts. For the sake of this story, let's say that we live in caves or in huts that are out in the "wilds" of some undeveloped area.

Imagine that I have invited you over to my cave because we just killed some big animal and are having a barbeque. Several of our friends are here outside of my cave just having a pleasant time.

I have supplied the group with some croquet mallets and balls and we are playing a little croquet on my front lawn. Like I said, we are having a great time.

We are thoroughly enjoying ourselves when, at some point, we notice some rustling of bushes in the distance and then, charging mightily, or hungrily, toward us emerges a huge ferocious-looking bear. This enormous creature has smelled our picnic and wants some of it for himself. He is a menacing creature that could easily put us out of commission with a single swipe of his mighty forearms.

As you imagine yourself in this scenario, one of the first thoughts that will likely pop into your mind is something like, "Uh-Oh! I am in trouble here!" "I am in danger and I am likely to experience some pain!" These immediate thoughts will be followed closely by the next thought, "RUN!" You sense the immediate need to get away from this ominous animal. You don't want to be its dinner. Your next thought might be, "I need to kill this creature to protect my family, myself, and my friends!" "FIGHT!"

The immediate effect of these thoughts is a physiological response that prepares the body to either run with incredible speed, or fight with incredible strength. This response is known as the fight-or-flight response.

Fight-or-Flight Response

An exciting flood of physiological processes in the body immediately takes place automatically and precisely after the initial thought of "Uh-Oh!" It is a state of physiological and psychological hyperarousal. A cascade of nervous system firings and release of stress hormones lead to immediate responses that help the person deal with danger either by fighting or running.

Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term fight-or-flight response to describe our body's automatic response when we perceive threat or danger. This is a primitive response that gives us strength, power, and speed to avoid physical harm. As you read in Sarah's story in the opening vignette, the fight-or-flight response can be activated to protect both ourselves and others when we perceive danger.

This response is amazingly complex, involving interactions between many organs and systems in our body. While it is not necessary for you to understand every detail of these complex interactions, it is important to understand the science of what is happening in your body and mind when your stress response is activated. You can use this information to guide you in developing an individualized program to prevent and manage stress.

Physiological Response to Stress

When the stress response is initiated, immediate and powerful changes come about because of the activation of a particular branch of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for many functions in the body that occur "automatically" such as digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature. The activity of the autonomic nervous system takes place completely beyond our conscious control. It is automatic.

There are two branches of the ANS that are designed to regulate the fight-or-flight response on a constant basis. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the ANS that is responsible for initiating the fight-or-flight response. Each time we have a thought of danger or pain, the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight-or-flight response to prepare us to handle the potential danger or pain. It is an automatic reaction. We only need to think that we are in danger and the flood of physiological and emotional activity is turned on and goes into perfect functioning to increase power, speed, and strength.

The other branch of the autonomic nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system. This branch of nervous activity is designed to return the physiology to a state of homeostasis, or balance, after the threat, danger, or potential pain is no longer perceived to be imminent. Homeostasis is a state of internal stability of our physiology and our emotions. The example at the beginning of the chapter of our state as we played croquet would be a good example of homeostasis. We are just enjoying things, flowing along, without emotional disturbances.

The function of the parasympathetic nervous system is to slow things down, to return us to a more calm state. During parasympathetic activity, blood concentrates in the central organs for such processes as digestion and storage of energy reserves. Breathing is slow, as is the heart rate. Blood pressure and body temperature drops. In general, muscle tension decreases. During parasympathetic activity (general relaxation) we are quiet and calm. The body regenerates and restores for future activity.

The autonomic nervous system is controlled by the hypothalamus, which is commonly known as the "master gland." The hypothalamus receives the message of danger from the higher-order thinking component of the mind and delivers a message through the nervous system that connects, like a hard-wire neuron system, to every other system of the body. The hypothalamus also delivers a message to the endocrine system to initiate the secretion of hormones. The hormones, primarily adrenalin and cortisol, flood the bloodstream and travel throughout the body to deliver information to cells and systems that will aid in creating the ability to be more speedy and powerful, as you saw so clearly demonstrated in Sarah's story in the opening story - Real Stories, Real People.

Epinephrine (adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenalin) are released into the bloodstream from the adrenal medulla. The adrenal medulla is the part of the adrenal glands positioned on top of the kidneys. Cortisol is the other key hormone released from a portion of the adrenal glands called the adrenal cortex. Together, these hormones flood every cell in the body with the specific message to prepare for fight-or-flight, for more power and speed when we are faced with an oncoming big bear.

Autonomic Nervous System Responses

Some immediate physiological changes that result from autonomic nervous system activation include:

Increased central nervous system (CNS) activity
-Increased mental activity
-Increased secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenalin (norepinephrine) and cortisol into the bloodstream and to every cell in the body
-Increased heart rate
-Increased cardiac output
-Increased blood pressure
-Increased breathing rate
-Breathing airways dilate
-Increased metabolism
-Increased oxygen consumption
-Increased oxygen to the brain
-Blood is shunted away from the digestive tract and directed into the muscles and limbs
-Increased muscle contraction which leads to increased strength
-Increased blood coagulation (blood clotting ability) -Increased circulation of free fatty acids
-Increased output of blood cholesterol
-Increased blood sugar released by the liver to nourish the muscles
-Release of endorphins from the pituitary gland
-Pupils of the eyes dilate
-Hair stands on its end
-Blood thins
-Increased brainwave activity
-Sweat glands increase secretion
-Increased secretion from Apocrine glands resulting in foul body odor
-Capillaries under the surface of the skin constrict (which consequently increases blood pressure)

There are also several processes in the body that tend to decrease in functioning when the fight-or-flight response is activated.

-Immune system is suppressed
-Constriction of blood vessels, except to running and fighting muscles
-Reproductive and sexual systems stop working normally
-Digestive system stops metabolizing food normally
-Excretory system turns off
-Saliva dries up
-Decreased perception of pain
-Kidneys decrease output
-Bowel and Bladder sphincter close

We do not need these functions and systems to operate at high capacity to either escape from or kill the big bear. Their work is therefore suppressed in order to divert energy to those vital systems involved in increasing speed and power. For example, you do not need the immune system to help you kill the big bear. You do not need the reproductive system to help you escape from the big bear. Understanding the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems response to stress is important in explaining the stress-related diseases and conditions covered in the next chapter.

Author's Anecdote

When I was a teenager, I lived in an area of town where there were nothing but homes and parks for many blocks. One part of this neighborhood had a large hedge that was about 4 feet high next to a somewhat busy street.

During the winter months my friends and I would assemble behind this hedge and prepare for oncoming cars. When they came close to our location we would unload a barrage of snowballs on the unsuspecting cars. (This was how we kept our arms in shape for baseball season during the off-season.) The person who was awarded the highest honors was the one of us who could make the best "dent" sounds in the car or truck that was passing by. Even more exciting than the dent sound was the rare occasion when the car or truck would stop and the driver of the car would come chasing after us.

Of course, nobody knew our neighborhood like we did, so the possibility of getting caught by even the swiftest of pursuers was very remote. But what we did notice, as we were being chased through our neighborhood, down the streets, and across the parks, was that in those times of pursuit, we were suddenly gifted with incredible speed and power. We were able to jump over high fences with ease, run down streets and through parks with the velocity of Olympians. We even noticed that in those times, our ability to see where we need to go to make it to safety (this activity always took place after the sun had set and darkness prevailed) dramatically improved. I am not very proud of those days and find myself irritated at those young teenagers who do the same thing to my car nowadays, but I learned some powerful lessons about the fight-or-flight response even in those early years.

The Purpose of the Fight-or-Flight Response

It is interesting that the physiological stress response has only one purpose. The fight-or-flight response is designed to help us do one thing, and only one thing, very well. That one and only purpose of this response is to help us SURVIVE!

Our bodies are designed for survival. When the big bear is charging at us, our system knows how to protect us from experiencing pain and death. The mechanics for sustaining us are nearly flawless. There is no other purpose for the fight-or-flight response.

The instant we have the thought of danger this flood of physiological activity happens automatically. It is like a magic switch inside that instantly, and without our conscious command, turns on all of those systems in the body that will help us be faster and stronger. In the short run, this response is a powerful and useful process, however kept "on" for a longer period; this response can produce serious problems. You will learn about stress and disease in the next chapter.

Notice that when we are in homeostasis, as we are when we are playing a friendly round of croquet, we are in a state of balance. Then something happens in our environment, like a big bear charging out of the forest. This perception of danger automatically initiates the fight-or-flight response. Once we sense no more danger, we experience exhaustion and fatigue because we have expended a tremendous amount of energy while running or fighting. We are exhausted but the stress response is no longer activated. Because we feel safe again, the functions in the body that activate the stress response are turned off. We gradually return to normal (homeostasis) and we are ready for more relaxing rounds of croquet.

So, physiologically, the stress response is characterized by sympathetic nervous system activation, which ultimately results in the secretion of chemicals into the bloodstream mobilizing the behavioral response. Whether the response culminates in "fight" or "flight" depends on whether the threat or stressor is perceived as surmountable. Thus, an appropriate stress response is essential to survival.

Research Highlight- Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females: Tend-and-Befriend, not Fight-or-Flight.

For the last five decades the fight-or-flight theory has dominated stress research. Our understanding of how the body responds to stressors has increased dramatically during this time. It is interesting to note that the biobehavioral fight-or-flight theory has been disproportionately based on studies of males. This is due in part to the fact that females experience natural, cyclical variations in hormonal and neuroendocrine responses. This can lead to confusing and often uninterpretable results. As a result, the processes involved in stress responses in females are less well understood.

A team of scientists supported by the National Institute of Mental Health formulated a theory that characterizes female responses to stress by a pattern they term "tend-and-befriend," rather than by "fight-or-flight." Their research supports the premise that female stress responses have selectively evolved to simultaneously maximize the survival of self and offspring.

Thus, the tend-and-befriend pattern involves females' nurturance of offspring under stressful circumstances, the exhibition of behaviors that protect them from harm (tending), and befriending - namely, creating and joining social groups for the exchange of resources and to provide protection. The scientists propose that these responses build on the biobehavioral attachment-caregiving processes that depend in part on oxytocin, estrogen and other sex-linked hormones.

Additionally, literature on both human and nonhuman primates evidence substantial female preference to affiliate, or make close connections with others, under stress compared to males. The tend-and-befriend pattern likely is maintained not only by sex-linked, neuroendocrine responses to stress, but by social and cultural roles as well. This interesting, new, theoretical model opens a fresh field of inquiry in stress research.

The fight-or-flight response is generally regarded as the prototypic human response to stress. The tend-and-befriend theory you read about in the Research Highlight - Biobehavioral Responses to Stress in Females provides some interesting food for thought, however this research is still in the early stages. While we know that there may be some differences in how males and females respond physiologically to stress, we also know that there are many similarities. The fight-or-flight response explains most clearly the chain of events that occur in most people in response to stress.

The Stress Response and You

So, how does this relate to you? You have probably never been chased by a big bear, or any other wild animal for that matter. The stress response today is simply the fight-or-flight response used by our primitive ancestors as they faced the threats of daily life.

Unfortunately, our bodies still react the same way to threats - real or imagined - even though, in a vast majority of cases, the stressor does not require us to fight or flee. As Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson remarked, "The fight-or-flight emergency response is inappropriate to today's social stresses."

The way the stress response works in the short run is very beneficial to help us amass great strength, focus more clearly, increase our speed and perform at a higher level when the equivalent of a big bear is running toward us. We can occasionally use this immediate energy to help us when we do find ourselves in actual danger, facing potential pain or even death.

Imagine this scenario that Ashley shared in class:

"My apartment mate, Julie, had left earlier in the day to spend the weekend with her family. After a quiet evening at home, I locked the doors and settled in to my cozy bed feeling safe and secure. Sometime during the night I woke suddenly and with a strange feeling that something wasn't right. There, standing right next to my bed, was a tall dark figure. My body instantly responded as I jolted from the bed and let out a scream that would wake the dead. I grabbed my lava lamp from my bedside table and flung it in the direction of the intruder. The shadowy figure turned quickly and dashed out through the open window." Ashley's stress response may have saved her life. The threat imposed by this stranger activated her stress response in an automatic and powerful manner.

Acute Stress

You can probably think of times when your body has responded to a danger in a manner similar to Ashley's response. Here are other examples of acute stress in which the demand, danger or threat is quick, immediate, very real, and usually does not last very long:

-Giving birth to a baby -Driving down the highway and your tire blows -Hiking down a trail when you trip and start to tumble down a steep decline -During an earthquake -When lightning strikes

You get the point. Acute stress does happen and in the very short run and in the right amounts, an appropriate amount of tension is helpful, beneficial, and may even save your life.

However, in reality, these types of experiences are a rare occurrence in daily life. Unless you happen to work in a high-risk occupation such as a policeman in the inner city, fireman, or a whitewater rafting guide, the percentage of our days that include actual threats to our lives is less than 1% of the time. Contrary to how it may look from watching the evening news, for most of us our society today is not one where acute threat or danger is a daily occurrence.

Chronic Stress

If the stress response is allowed to stay in the "on" position for more time than is necessary to escape the big bear, the result can be damage to our health. We call this state of continued sympathetic nervous system activation "chronic stress." The diagram that we used earlier can be altered slightly to demonstrate the stress response staying "on." It would look like this:

Instead of returning to homeostasis, the fight or flight response is activated for an extended period of time. Have you ever heard someone say that she or he seems to be stressed all the time? You are probably beginning to understand why this is a problem?

As we discussed earlier, when we have that "uh-oh" thought, the stress response turns on automatically. With this comes a flood of physiological activity designed to help us run fast and have lots of strength. However, if it is not turned off, or down, there are many unhealthy consequences.

Listen to your body. Your body is designed to give you feedback about the choices you make. For example, when a person is hung over from drinking too much the night before, the body sends messages including headache, nausea, unclear thinking, and muscle pain. On the other hand, a healthy choice like a nice, relaxing jog can result in feeling balanced, alert, refreshed, and energized. The body is sending messages that jogging was a healthy decision.

Remaining in the stress response is not healthy. The body gives us feedback about excess stress with a host of signals. Some of those signals, if not heeded, include damage to parts of the system. Although stress is not listed among the top 10 causes of death in America, it is linked to many illnesses. This does not necessarily mean that stress causes the problem, but it does mean that stress contributes to the problem.

The General Adaptation Syndrome

One of the best known biological theories of stress is the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), a process in which the body tries to adapt to stress. The general adaptation syndrome provides a summary of the physiological changes that follow stress.

Stress pioneer Dr. Hans Selye developed this theory as a result of his research on the physiological effects of chronic stress on rats. Selye observed three sets of responses whenever he injected an animal with a toxin:

-the animal's adrenal glands enlarged
-the animal's lymph nodes shrank
-severe bleeding ulcers developed in the animals stomach and intestines

He had noticed the same types of response ten years earlier, as a medical student. Selye theorized that the same pattern of changes occurs in the body in reaction to any kind of stress and that the pattern is what eventually leads to disease conditions, such as ulcers, arthritis, hypertension, arteriosclerosis, or diabetes. Selye called the pattern the general adaptation syndrome. For decades, researchers have studied the syndrome, and Selye's theories have held up to all levels of scientific scrutiny.

Dr. Selye identified three stages of the general adaptation syndrome:

Alarm Stage - When a stressor occurs, the body responds in what has previously been described as the fight-or-flight response. Several body systems are activated, especially the nervous and endocrine systems, to prepare the body for action.

Stage of Resistance - If the stressor continues, the body mobilizes its internal resources in an effort to return to a state of homeostasis, but because the perception of a threat still exists, complete homeostasis is not achieved. The stress response stays activated, usually at less intensity than during the alarm stage, but still at a level to cause hyperarousal. For example, if you learn that your mother is diagnosed with cancer, you may initially respond intensely and feel great stress. During the subsequent weeks, you struggle to carry on but this requires considerable effort.

State of Exhaustion - If the stress continues long enough, the body can no longer function normally. Organ systems may fail and the body breaks down in a variety of ways. Continuous stress that causes the body to constantly adapt can become a threat to health. It is difficult to maintain a state of wellness over time when our body energy is channeled into coping with stress.


Your body is designed to respond to acute stress in a predicable manner for one outcome, your survival. This response, the fight-or-flight, or stress response, is critical for your ability to survive the life-threatening situations in life. Through the actions of the autonomic nervous system, your body is programmed for a response that will protect you from harm.

In today's world however, many of our challenges are not acute, physical challenges. Today we are faced with psychological and social stressors like too much to do, financial debt, concern for a loved one, loneliness, or unhealthy relationships. Our physiological response is not well suited to deal with these types of stressors. There are negative health consequences when our bodies stay in a state of physiological hyperarousal without release.

Understanding concepts such as the fight-or-flight stress response and the general adaptation syndrome provide you with the foundation for understanding how relaxation techniques have the ability to intercept the stress response. In chapter four you will learn more about the powerful mind/body connection and its impact on health and disease.

Key Points

*The fight-or-flight response is designed to help us survive.
*The fight-or-flight response involves a complex interaction of many body systems and organs. This response activates needed functions and minimizes unnecessary functions during times of stress.
*The autonomic nervous system is responsible for a large number of commonly occurring functions in the body that occur "automatically" such as digestion, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature.
*The two branches of the ANS are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic branch is responsible for expending energy. The parasympathetic branch is responsible for conserving energy.
*The autonomic nervous system is controlled by the hypothalamus.
*While the fight-or-flight response is critical to our survival during times of acute physical stress, this response can have unhealthy consequences during times on ongoing social or psychological stress.
*The General Adaptation Syndrome describes a process in which the body tries to accommodate stress by adapting. This process consists of three stages; Alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.

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