About Anxiety

How the Fight or Flight Response Causes Flushing

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

How the Fight or Flight Response Causes Flushing

The fight or flight response is a complex set of reactions that can be caused by fear and by anxiety. Flushing, or reddening of the face and/or other body parts, is one of the many side effects of these reactions. Others may misunderstand the reaction and assume it is a sign of embarrassment or anger, which can lead to failures of communication and heightened tension in the situation causing your anxiety.

Read on to learn exactly how and why the fight or flight response triggers flushing in the body, as well as what you can do to minimize this embarrassing side effect.

What Flushing Means

Fight or flight is a primal reaction that has been with us since we were coming face to face with saber-toothed tigers. Though we have fewer tigers to contend with now, our responses to fear stimuli have remained remarkably similar.

During the fight or flight response, the body prepares itself to either escape or combat the object of our fear or anxiety even though it is often the case with anxiety that there is no physical object to combat or run away from.

Flushing is a reaction to stress that turns the face red, and sometimes also other areas of the body such as the arms and chest. It is more severe than blushing, which is subtler, limited to the face and ears, and usually only indicates embarrassment.

Read on to find out what bodily actions cause flushing, and the reasons why they happen.

How and Why Your Body Causes Flushing

Your body does everything for a reason: however, flushing is primarily caused by the fact that what the body is doing for us in fight or flight is an unnecessary response to most modern situations.

The bodily reactions associated with fight or flight that cause flushing include:

  • Rush of Adrenaline Adrenaline triggers the circulatory systems in your body to work double-time, to compensate for the exertion it assumes will be necessary for the dramatic exit or confrontation soon to come. It is the primary chemical released during fight or flight. Adrenaline dilates blood vessels. Your faces has a lot of blood vessels, and this creates that red glow. This is the primary reason for the flushing caused by fight/flight.
  • Rapid Heart Rate The adrenaline that speeds up your heart rate causes your heart to pump extra blood throughout your body, feeding your muscles all the chemicals and nutrients they need to act suddenly if necessary. Rapid heart rate keeps blood moving quickly, which could result in a slight red tinge. This is directly related to the rush of adrenaline.
  • Muscle Tension Muscle tension can also accompany fight or flight as glucogens are released into the muscles, giving them extra energy and power. The exertion caused by the tensing of these muscles can increase blood flow even more.
  • Rapid Breathing Rapid breathing during fight or flight fuels your more rapidly pumping blood with the oxygen it needs. If you didn't breathe fast in this condition your blood would become depleted of oxygen and you could pass out. Rapid breathing may also contribute to blood flow issues that cause redness.
  • Lack of Movement When you neither fight nor run away but instead freeze, or have no outlet for all this extra blood and muscle tension, the heart ends up putting out more blood flow than is required by the muscles, causing the skin to develop a pink or red tinge. This, combined with all the rest, is the main reason for facial and bodily flushing.

Anxiety attacks often result in the circulation of excess blood by the heart, which can easily result in flushing. However, the heart palpitations and nausea that can sometimes be associated with anxiety may also result in paleness or blanching, flushing's polar opposite.

Whether you are more prone to flushing or blanching, you probably don't want to be. The following section will examine what you can do to avoid flushing when you experience the fight or flight response.

How to Minimize Flushing

There are a number of methods that you can use to control your flushing problem, the no-longer-relevant remnant of a chain reaction that we once needed to keep from being eaten by other, bigger animals. Check out these modern solutions to an age-old problem below:

  • Eat Healthier Foods Foods high in cholesterol will clog your arteries and force your heart to work even harder to pump blood through your system, which results in even more excess blood gathering under your skin when you experience anxiety attacks. Replacing desserts with healthier alternatives such as homemade fruit smoothies and large meals with lighter ones can keep your body in better shape to more quickly process excess blood and reduce how long flushing symptoms last.
  • Exercise Regularly Similarly, exercising regularly is great for your body. It strengthens and enlarges your muscles, which makes it easier for them to use up excess blood in the system. Additionally, when your body is fit and healthy, you will have removed anxiety-causing problems like negative body image and persistent physical discomfort from your life, which will make you less prone to the anxiety attacks that lead to flushing.
  • Practice Yoga and/or Meditation Practices such as yoga and meditation often have a primary focus on controlling the body's functions and actions with your mind. Breathing and relaxation exercises can help you calm your mind and body, slow your heart rate, and return your breathing to normal. This signals your body to stop releasing fight or flight chemicals because the perceived danger has passed.
  • Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy If you are still having no luck reducing your flushing problem, it may be a good idea to see if cognitive behavioral therapy works for you. This type of therapy is another avenue toward training your body to react in healthier ways to anxiety-related stress, but with the assistance of professionals in the field.

As you alter your lifestyle to reduce stress on your heart and in your mind, the embarrassment of flushing red all over for no good reason will soon be a thing of the past.

Don't forget that embarrassment over flushing can also cause flushing. So you do need to make sure that you're okay with your redness. If you are flushing and someone asks you if something is wrong, be okay with telling them that you tend to flush once in a while from anxiety. Your openness will prevent you from letting your anxiety spiral.

Still, you need to make sure that you're taking action to reduce your anxiety and start seeing real changes in your day to day life.

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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