You are walking home from work and you hear footsteps behind you in the dark. Your heart starts to race and you are tempted to start running. This is how your body reacts to perceived danger — it prepares you to survive the situation by activating the “fight-or-flight response.”
Can our nervous system be stuck in a fight-or-flight response? What if we want to run to safety even though there is no actual danger? The next sections explain the flight-or-flight response, how it works, and what to do about it.
Despite our relatively safe and relaxed society nowadays, things have not always been the same. Our ancestors faced numerous dangers in their environment and had a quick decision to make: they could either stay and fight or run away. This response is natural and it’s triggered by stressful situations.
Nowadays, our physiological stress may not be triggered by facing a fierce animal, but we have many modern stressors that can trigger the flight-or-fight response. Regardless of what causes the response, it is our body’s natural mechanism that prepares us to deal with the threat and survive.
The fight-or-flight response was first mentioned in the 1920s when psychologist Walter Cannon studied the chain of reactions our body goes through when we deal with a threatening situation. In short, when we experience acute physiological stress, our nervous system releases stress hormones, including adrenaline.
These hormones cause increased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration rate. Once the dangerous situation is over, we may need up to one hour to return to the previous state.
People who went through trauma are more likely to experience the fight-or-flight response on a frequent basis. Talk therapy can help you control your response to stress and deal with mental health issues caused by chronic stress.
Symptoms of the Fight-or-Flight Response
When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, people feel specific physical symptoms:
• Our pupils get dilated to let more light in so we can have a better vision;
• Our hearing becomes sharper;
• The pain perception decreases so you won’t feel much pain during the response if you get injured, since it could stop you from getting to safety;
• Your face may become pale as a result of increased blood flow to muscles, or flushed, which is a sign of blood rushing to the brain; during the fight-or-flight reaction, our blood becomes thicker to prevent excessive bleeding in the case of injury;
• Trembling or shaking as muscles get tensed, ready for action;
• Rapid breathing and racing heartbeat — your respiration and heart rates increase so your body has more oxygen and energy to respond to the danger quickly.
Fight, flight, freeze is common to experience. Freezing is the same response put on hold, as you get ready to protect yourself by staying still and preparing for the next move.
We all experience the fight-or-flight response in a variety of life situations:
• When driving, if the next car stops abruptly;
• When we’re scared by someone else;
• When feeling “watched” or unsafe when walking outside;
• When coming across a growling dog or another animal.
Is Fight-or-Flight Response Good or Bad?
Without our fight-or-flight response, we would not be ready for threats. It is a critical aspect of how we deal with danger. When this response is triggered, we are ready to perform under intense pressure, which means that we are more likely to survive the danger.
The fight-or-flight response is a normal way for our body to keep us safe so it occurs automatically. However, what if we are not actually in danger when it happens? The response can be triggered by both real and imaginary situations. For instance, have you ever walked into your home at night and realized that a piece of furniture looked like a person standing in the dark?
People may perceive different situations as dangerous. Someone who is afraid of dogs, for instance, will most likely experience the fight-or-flight response when seeing a growling dog on the street.
Another person who is scared of heights will most likely feel the same if they have to go for an interview on the top floor of a skyscraper. Phobias, in general, are examples of how the fight-or-flight response can be triggered by imaginary situations. In some cases, it can lead to panic attacks.
What to Do About the Fight-or-Flight Response?
There are several ways to deal with an uncontrollable stress response. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, although an individual combination of treatment methods will definitely work for anyone experiencing this.
Practice relaxation techniques whenever your fight-or-flight response is triggered. Relaxation can help you calm down and overcome the fight-or-flight symptoms.
Here are some simple yet effective relaxation techniques:
• Breathing deeply;
• Relaxing your muscles;
• Repeating a positive and calming word;
• Thinking about a peaceful scenery;
• Practicing yoga.
When you practice these relaxation techniques on a regular basis, they can help you master the stress response and decrease your discomfort.
Another option is to make sure that physical activity is a major part of your daily life. Physical activity can normalize stress hormones (such as adrenaline), increasing your calmness, helping you sleep better, and boosting endorphins.
Seeking social support is also a good way of keeping your general stress level down. Your friends, co-workers, relatives, and other people you know can make you feel more relaxed so your stress levels will decline. When you are surrounded by the people you love, you can feel more safe.
Get professional help
If your fight-or-flight response is too frequent, you may want to consider therapy. A therapist can help you deal with chronic stress, excessive fear, and persistent worrying. During therapy, a licensed therapist can help you understand what triggers your fight-or-flight response and provide the necessary support.
The professional will help you find and solve the cause of the constant fear and create a personalized plan so that you can cope with your symptoms.
While in-person therapy may not be a convenient option for people with busy schedules, online therapy platforms like Calmerry allow you to talk to a therapist from the comfort of your home. You can learn more about talk therapy to prepare for your first session.
The fight, flight, freeze response is a normal way of protecting ourselves when we are threatened or in a dangerous situation. However, this physiological response can be rooted in fears, and sometimes, we may feel stressed out without encountering any real threats.
For instance, people who went through traumatic events or suffer from anxiety are more likely to overreact to situations that are not threatening. In this case, it is important to seek professional help so that you can overcome your fear and manage stress.