About Anxiety
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Introduction to the Fight or Flight Response

Denise Griswold, MSc, LCAS
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:

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:

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.

Article Resources
  1. Jansen, Arthur SP, et al. Central command neurons of the sympathetic nervous system: basis of the fight-or-flight response. Science 270.5236 (1995): 644-646.
  2. Curtis, Brian M., and James H. O'Keefe Jr. Autonomic tone as a cardiovascular risk factor: the dangers of chronic fight or flight.Mayo Clinic Proceedings.Vol. 77.No. 1.Elsevier, 2002. 
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