What is The Flight or Fight Response

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Security and emergency service personnel, Police and military members regularly encounter stressful or dangerous situations in their working lives. Fortunately, our bodies have a natural stress response mechanism to threatening situations. This is known as the ‘fight or flight response’. Understanding our body’s natural response to threat and danger can help us recognize the signs of this response, but also better understand the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What is The Flight or Fight Response?

The flight or fight response refers to a biochemical reaction that both humans and animals experience during extreme stressful or terrifying situations. The sympathetic nervous system releases hormones that cause changes to body.

The body responds to perceived threat or danger mentally and or physically. Certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released. It Increases the heart rate, your breathing rate, slows digestion, pushing blood to major muscle groups, and changing various other autonomic nervous functions. This prepares our bodies for the onslaught, giving the body its ability to enable us to physically fight or run away when faced with danger.

However, the same response may be inappropriate in a situation when in traffic or during a stressful day at work. It is also important to note that the response can be triggered due to both real and imaginary threats.

When the perceived threat is gone, the body returns to normal function through a relaxation response. It can take between 20 to 60 minutes for the body to return to normal levels.

With chronic stress being an integral part of our work, the ability to relax doesn’t happen enough. This can impact our health.

Anxiety and Fear – Why are they helpful?

If we are going to talk about the flight or fight syndrome, it is important to discuss the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is what you experience while you are encountering a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a stressful, or threatening situation. Simply thinking about something stressful or dangerous that could happen to you can cause you to be anxious too.

Anxiety and fear are very helpful responses. They are hard-wired responses to extreme danger and threat. Without them the human race may not have survived. Why? Flight or fight refers to the two choices our ancestors had when facing a dangerous animal or enemy. Anxiety and fear tell us when danger is present. Here are some signs that your body is going through a number of physiological changes:

  • Your heart rate may increase – pushing blood to the bigger muscle groups
  • Your vision may narrow – increased focus, sometimes called ‘tunnel vision’
  • You may notice that your muscles become tense – in preparation to spring into action
  • You may begin to sweat – to help cool the body
  • Your hearing may become more sensitive – heightened senses and awareness
  • Cool, pale skin – Pulling blood away from the skin also helps decrease bleeding from cuts and scrapes.
  • Dilated pupils – To let more light in and improve sight, the pupils dilate.
  • Dry mouth – The body can interrupt digestion of food until after the threat has been eliminated. This same reaction can also cause an upset stomach.

These changes prepare you for immediate action. They are preparing you to flee, or freeze (like a possum when caught in the headlights of an oncoming car), or to fight. It is a response designed to keep us alive, and important to our survival. It is a response that comes quickly and automatically.

The flight or fight response is a direct result of adrenaline being released into the bloodstream. Anything that causes stress to the body will trigger a fight or flight response – for example, an angry patron, deadlines, a fight, an assailant approaching, a work accident, etc.

A Downside to This Response

It would be great if anxiety and fear only occurred in situations where we were in immediate danger. This is not always the way. For example, many people have fear and anxiety when speaking publicly. You may also have fear and anxiety when meeting someone new.

We have fear and anxiety in these situations because of the way we evaluate these situations. Our body cannot always tell the difference between real and imagined threat. Therefore, when we interpret a situation as threatening, our body is going to respond as though that situation is dangerous and threatening, even if it really isn’t at all.

Managing the Flight or Fight Response

For some people, the flight or fight responses can be triggered by events that would usually be ignored by others. This hypersensitivity can be caused by factors, including:

  • Being born with imbalance in brain hormones, such as anxiety and bipolar disorders
  • There is a history of verbal or physical abuse from childhood
  • Other post-traumatic stress disorders

Spending so much time in this state of high alert is exhausting and damaging. We have spoken about the changes the body goes through but prolonged exposure also has physical consequences. Those include feeling stressed all the time, including high blood pressure, tension or migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, not to mention Post Traumatic Stres Disorder (PTSD).

How do we remove all that negative energy when we know there is no real danger? Especially since, the flight or fight reaction is an involuntary physical response. Sending a mental message to our adrenal glands to tell them to stop producing adrenalin and noradrenalin may not be possible but adopting a simple breathing technique is one way to remain calm.

Just Breathe

Simply breathing is an easy technique for calming yourself from this heightened state of alert. Just from taking a moment to pause and notice what’s going on in our bodies, is effective form of relief.

  • Find a quiet place.
  • Sit up straight in a chair, both feet on the floor, arms rested on your knees or just lie on the floor.
  • Begin to inhale by expanding your abdomen, move your breath into your lungs then, all the way into your chest.
  • As you exhale, begin exhaling down through your lungs and into your abdomen. Contract your abdominal muscles as you exhale your final breath of air.
  • Practice this for one minute and then progressively lengthen the practice to five minutes.

This breathing technique promotes full exhalation and inhalation.

There’s no need to push yourself or judge yourself for getting stressed. Just take the time out and focus on your breathing.

The Flight or Fight Response and PTSD

People with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have experienced something traumatic, and feel as though the world is not a safe place. They feel as though danger is everywhere. This can cause a person to be in a constant state of fear and anxiety. There are now developed cognitive behavioral treatments for PTSD where the focus is on offering alternative ways in which people see their environment. Awareness and recognition of triggering behaviors and environments may also help to minimize their hypertensive onslaught of the fight or flight response.

Reactions to traumatic experiences come in a variety of ways. Some might experience symptoms of trauma which disappear after a number of weeks. However, if symptoms of trauma continue for longer than a month then its possible PTSD is present.

Trauma symptoms vary from person to person, but some examples are:

  • On constant alert
  • Intense physical reactions to reminders of the event (e.g. pounding heart, nausea, muscle tension, sweating)
  • Irritability or outbursts of anger
  • Feeling suicidal
  • Irrational and intense fear
  • Limited tolerance to noise
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being easily moved to tears
  • Panic attacks/anxiety/depression/mood swings
  • Feeling agitated and easily startled
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Anger or aggressive behavior
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares

Can You Recover from PTSD?

Yes, you can, and that’s the good news. With the right treatment and support, PTSD is entirely treatable, and you will eventually start to feel better.

There are many available treatments such as EMDR and CBT. There are also many medical and natural options, including kundalini yoga, equine therapy, ketogenic diet, running, and ocean and surf therapy. You might want to give some of these a go while you wait for the next stages of your treatment to begin.

You can also find out more about ways of reducing your symptoms and dealing with your diagnosis.  There’s also a lot of other information available to educate you about post-traumatic stress disorder. Knowledge is power and it can help you to feel more in control.

It might feel like a long road ahead, and there will potentially be pot-holes for you in that journey, but the good news is that you are on the right path for where you want to be; and we’re here, with you, for the long haul.

Sometimes you may be putting obstacles in the way of your recovery. Understanding those barriers you are putting in place is the first step to eliminating them.

  • Your Feelings Matter: Your feelings are valid. Don’t listen to comments from those who are ignorant of PTSD. Don’t sabotage yourself saying ‘it won’t work’- You have to believe it will.
  • Take your time: You cannot don’t rush the recovery process. Give your brain, emotions and mind time to work together.
  • Stay the Course: You may approach a part of recovery which feels like its taken you further away from the trauma you need to address. Acknowledge this feeling and keep moving towards the end goal of full recovery.
  • Give up control: Control is a way of ‘staying safe’ but for effective recovery you need a free and open environment to work in. You have to trust that things can, and will, get better.
  • Being overwhelmed: Treatment will seem a daunting task especially when you are feeling at your lowest point. Knowing what is involved in treatment can be comforting and motivating.
  • An emotional and physical cost: Recovery can seem like a costly and exhaustive process when you consider your feelings, relationships, money and time. Knowing that it is possible to be yourself again will make it all worthwhile.
  • Trust yourself: You may not feel confident enough to take the right path of recovery, to choose the right treatment or to do what’s necessary to rid you of PTSD. Just follow the advice of the professionals, and trust yourself when it comes to your well-being.
  • Recovery isn’t balanced: Don’t just focus on recovery, give yourself space to breathe. it can be detrimental to treatment. On the other hand if you don’t focus enough on recovery, it may stop progress. There has to be a balance.
  • Be Committed: You need to be mentally invested in your treatment and recovery. Otherwise you can forget the reason you started this journey and can negatively affect the recovery process.  Again its about trusting that the treatment can be successful.  Get the most you can from your therapist.
  • Trust Yourself: When you choose to take the right path of recovery, and treatment that is necessary to rid you of PTSD. Just follow the advice of the professionals, and trust yourself when it comes to your well-being.

It is good to recognize and acknowledge how you’re feeling. Sometimes you just need to stop moving forward and deal with the obstacle in your way. Only then can you get your recovery back on track.

Final Thoughts

The flight or fight response is an involuntary response which prepares us when we are confronted with extreme threat and or danger. We have learned that anxiety and stress are natural responses and that without them there would be no human existence.

its obvious that although this warning system is important, it can also be detrimental to our mental and physical health, therefore an understanding of the symptoms and early warning signs can help minimise the harmful effects of prolonged stress and anxiety. More importantly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is entirely treatable and with the right treatment and support, can progressively help you feel better.

Click below to get more resources on this subject.

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4 Replies to “What is The Flight or Fight Response”

  1. Thank you for the great post.

    In your final thoughts you say that the fight or flight response is voluntary.  Did you mean that?  For me it’s involuntary.  The enhanced situational awareness, increased heartate and being more on edge just comes.  I know you say we can take steps to get ourselves out of it but I have no control coming into it.

    I’m the type of person that doesn’t really have any gray areas.  What I mean by this is I tend to be litterral and there’s not really anything in between on and off.  It applies to my moods and the way I interact with others.  I go from one extreme to the other.  I have a few questions that may be outside your experience or expertise but if, you know the answers or have resources to refer me to, I’d love your input:

    1) Do you think the fight or flight response is more prominent in those who tend to shy away from others (i.e. people who are terrified to leave their homes, etc.)?

    2) Is there any data that would help to understand when someone would fight vs when they would take flight?  Where does the instinct come from and where does it draw the line when it comes to making that decision?

    I ask these questions based on my own observations of others and myself and I’m perplexed as to why things happen the way they do.

    Thank you for the post and I hope to hear back from you.

    1. Hi Scott, you are right it should read ‘involuntary’. I apologise for the confusion and will rectify this typo immediately.

      In response to your great questions. 

      In my experience, observations and research on this subject, the involuntary responses are of varying degrees. This is determined by a number of factors. Life experience, cultural background, upbringing, regular exposure to critical situations as well as other factors which come into play. Like anything it is inevitable that we will experience ‘fight or flight’ sometime in our lifetime but responding to a situation would illicit different responses by different people. 

      Understanding what is happening to us physically, physiologically and acknowledging the emotions during the onslaught of ‘flight or flight’ better equips us to mitigate extreme situations so as to ensure our safety first and that of those around us. 

      So to answer your first question. Is ‘fight or flight’ prominent in someone who is shy and hides away in their homes because they are terrified? Well the degree of fear is heightened for sure. If you are controlled by that fear and do not have a coping mechanism to manage the situation then you may not be able to make good informed decisions that will keep you safe or help you function comfortably. Not ‘fight or flight’ is a natural reaction its what we do with it and how we respond to it that’s important.

      There is so much information out there on this subject and there are a couple of books on the subject I think you will find informative and interesting. I will put them up on this post.

      Thanks Scott

      1. Thanks for replying.

        I have to say, when in, let’s say, an uncomfortable situation, I immediately become more aware of my surroundings. I actually tend to fight an urge to be the aggressor in those situations. What I can’t figure out is why a have an urge to confront or attack. It wasn’t always this way. I don’t know if I have some subconscious “I’m sick of this s**t” trigger that says “enough’s enough” or what. That’s what really has me interested in your post here. I’m just trying to understand the reasoning behind my feelings and actions in such cases.

        Thanks again,

        1. Hi Scott,

          what youre describing is’fight or flight’ and its natural to feel these emotions. As to why? It would be a combination of body and mind preparing to fight. The anger is a coping mechanism but its good that you are able to identify the emotions, and the hieghtened awareness. Making well informed decisions based on your circumstances and your situation is critical for your safety and safety of those around you. This is when your training should kick in. You shouild already recognise the type of situation you are in from your training and what your company procedures say.

          If however you chose to get the hell out of there and avoid the situation all together, then thats okay too, but again your training and company procedures should offer you some guidelines as to how you handle the situation. Doing absolutely nothing in any given situation is a failure in your duty of care to those you are tasked to protect.

          Equally a failure in your duty of care is to submit to, (as you say) your urges to become the aggressor and doing something that may cause injury to someone and to yourself all because you acted impulsively.

          The most important thing in such situations is to be completely honest about your capabilities and limitations. Your safety the safety of others and the preservation of life is paramount.

          Read my other article on Conflict Resolution which may also help: https://adutyofcare.com/conflict-resolution-strategies-for-security-operatives

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