About Anxiety

Introduction to the Fight or Flight Response

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

Introduction to the Fight or Flight Response

Excess anxiety can cause disruption in a person’s life and many state that they cannot have a good life without anxiety. It is often overlooked that anxiety can be a positive state of being. Anxiety itself is a biological process designed to keep you safe from harm. It's perhaps one of the most important tools your body has to stay safe in danger, and without it, you may not be here today.

The problem is not anxiety. The problem is an anxiety disorder. That's when anxiety - also known as your fight or flight response - is triggered when no danger is present.

Understanding the Fight or Flight Response

Even though there are many different types of anxiety disorders, all of them relate to the fight or flight response. It'll give you more information about how your anxiety works and what you can do to manage it.

The Fight or Flight System

Imagine you live in a world surrounded by predators. You're walking along and suddenly an angry tiger is directly in your path. What do you do?

Without your fight or flight system, you'd probably do nothing. You'd be unable to fear the tiger, so you wouldn't know that you need to run away. Even if you did, you'd have nothing helping you. It would be like getting into a fight but being unable to use much strength or respond very quickly.

That's why you have a fight or flight response. That response is a flood of changes to your hormones, neurotransmitters, and body to prepare you to immediately run away or fight. It's designed to cover all of the bases: improving blood flow to the areas that need it, keeping your body cool, providing you with more energy, helping you see and respond more quickly, improving your mindset, etc.

Thanks to the fight or flight system, you'd immediately know to feel fear when you see the tiger, you'd have the energy to run away, and you wouldn't hurt your body in the process.

How Fight or Flight Becomes an Anxiety Disorder

Now that we have determined that your fight or flight system actually is useful we can differentiate the difference between anxiety (fight or flight response) and anxiety disorders.

The problem isn't your fight or flight system. The problem is your fight or flight system activating when no danger is present. It's when your fight or flight symptom is essentially malfunctioning in a way that causes you to experience the effects of the system without any justifiable cause.

Why this system malfunctions isn't always clear. Chances are it has to do with numerous issues, including:

  • Genetics - It's well known that genetics play a role in the development of anxiety. Being "nervous" is actually something that probably kept early man safe from harm, and so those that exhibited extra nervousness were probably more likely to have children than those that did not. It's also likely that at some point in history, those genetic traits went a little too far, and started to be passed on from person to person.
  • Lack of Dangers It's also possible that unnecessary anxiety occurs because the world is a safer place. Imagine you have a system in place that's supposed to be keeping you safe from harm, but then you never experience any scenario that requires it. It's possible that the system "breaks," in a way. We see this with dogs. Dogs that do not get to use their instincts, like digging, sometimes experience such profound psychological boredom that they start digging inappropriately in places they shouldn't be digging.
  • Inactivity - One well-supported cause of anxiety is inactivity. This is also an example that we see in dogs. Dogs that don't get to exercise enough or spend too much time in a crate start to suffer from psychological problems and stress. Human beings were meant to be active, but are living in an increasingly inactive world. That's why exercise is one of the first and most important anxiety treatments.
  • Stress - We may not live in a dangerous world, but we do live in a stressful world. Despite dealing with predators, early man had a somewhat easy life. All they had to do was eat and stay safe. Now, we work full time, we deal with incredibly complex social groups, and more. Anxiety was probably helpful for those under long term stress in the past, because it gave them a sense of urgency to stay away from danger. Now, long term stress is just stress, and damaging to psychological health.
  • General Poor Coping Habits Even though the fight or flight response is a physical issue, your mind plays a significant role in perpetuating unnecessary anxiety. Human beings today have bad coping habits and behaviors that cause them more stress or make it harder to control stress. For example, drinking alcohol to temporarily reduce your anxiety makes it harder to use healthy mental coping responses to control your anxiety. Also, watching horror movies or gambling increases stress, which in turn increases your risk for anxiety. All of these types of issues are within your control.
  • Behavioral Training Human beings have incredible cognitive skills, and that means that there are many issues in life that can create or encourage anxious behaviors. We learn from our parents, so if they're anxious we're more likely to become anxious. We have goals, so if we're not reaching them we may become anxious. We are social animals, so if our social groups are not kind to us (like a bad workplace), we may become anxious. There are many reasons to see where behavioral training and thought processes play a role in developing anxiety.

As you can see, the cause of anxiety disorders is fairly complex, and there's no easy way to figure out what the exact issue is. But at the same time, there are certainly some contributing factors that are well established and likely to play a significant role.

Symptoms of the Fight or Flight System

It may be misleading to call the fight or flight effects "symptoms" since the issue is not a disease, but rather a healthy way to stay safe from danger. The following are some of the effects that can be directly attributed to the activation of this response, and why they occur:

  • Rapid Heartbeat Your heartbeat speeds up in order to make sure that blood can travel to the areas of your body that need it most.
  • Sweating Running/fighting can cause the body to become overheated and fatigued. Sweating occurs to make sure your body stays cool.
  • Energy Your fight or flight system affects your glucose levels and uses adrenaline to provide your body with a flood of energy, which may cause you to shake.
  • Digestion/Bladder Issues The fight or flight response slows digestion and weakens your bladder because these systems are not considered as important for your physical resources in a moment of danger.
  • Hyperventilation The fight or flight response can cause you to breathe more quickly to adapt for the fight. This may result in hyperventilation, which is the cause of many anxiety symptoms such as chest pains, lightheadedness, difficulty breathing, and more.
  • Tingling/Cold Limbs Severe anxiety can remove blood from some areas of the body (like the fingers and hands) and move that blood to the heart and other areas that need it.
  • Difficulty Thinking In the fight or flight response, overthinking can be dangerous. So the mind makes it harder to think to help you act more on instinct.
  • Dilated Pupils Dilated pupils allow you to gather more light, which in turn can help you respond faster to attacks.

These are all immediate effects of the fight or flight response and as you now know, the fight or flight response was designed to help with short-term dangerous situations. The fact that it is not intended to be activated long term is why there are some symptoms of anxiety that do not show up on the list of fight or flight reactions. For example, anxiety often causes muscle tension. This is not due to the direct actions of the fight or flight response, but the stress that the response puts on your body if maintained long term.

How to Rebuild a Healthy Fight or Flight Response

The fight or flight system is a natural instinct, and one that you cannot and should not want to eliminate. Even though this is an automatic process, your mental health and coping ability can control it to prevent unnecessary activation.

So how do you address your mental health effectively?

It starts with exercise, which should be priority number one. Exercise releases neurotransmitters that improve mood, burns away stress hormone and adrenaline, tires muscles to reduce anxiety symptoms and more. Exercise has been compared to some of the leading anti-anxiety medications and come out tied or ahead, all without a single chemical. If you're not exercising yet, you should be.

Healthy living in general can play a role too. While anxiety doesn't usually develop because of the foods you eat or your lifestyle choices, studies have shown that anxiety coping is better when you get a full night's sleep, drink enough water, and try your best to cut down on stress producing activities. Diet hasn't been shown to play a strong role in anxiety, but since a healthier diet can help you feel better in general, it may be of benefit too.

There are also countless anxiety treatments available that appear to help people regain control of their mental health, which in turn controls their fight/fight response. Therapy is incredibly valuable, medications and herbal supplements appear to work, and several alternative and at-home treatments seem to be very effective at relieving anxiety.

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

Ask Doctor a Question

Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

Ask Doctor a Question

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