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What is the flight or fight response?

Updated: Oct 2, 2023


Emergency button symbolising the flight or fight response

Recently, I have seen an increase in the term "flight or fight response" in the media. But what does it actually mean?


Flight or fight refers to a crucial survival instinct, in which our body responds to protect itself in the face of perceived threat without us even having had to think about it. It's deeply routed in our biological makeup, dating back to our prehistoric days, and was an important survival strategy. Whilst most of us don't regularly encounter sabre tooth tigers, we still face stressors that trigger our bodies to react the same way.


When our brain believes it has spotted a threat, it sets off a chain reaction throughout our body. Amongst other physiological reactions this increases our heart rate and blood pressure, changes our breathing pattern, blood being sent to our muscles, sharpens our senses, and suspends non-essential functions such digestion. Meanwhile stress hormones are released including adrenaline and cortisol.


Now, if you've just stepped out in front of a car without looking, you might expect and accept feeling this way. We'd say "what a fright!" and know that in time our bodies will return to our normal state. But this response doesn't just get triggered by life threatening situations. Other stressors, such as work deadlines, an argument, uncomfortable thoughts or memories, or exposure to something that reminds us of a time were were under threat can all trigger the flight or fight response, causing our bodies to respond as though they were in present, immediate danger.


People who are exposed to what we call chronic stress, that is stress that occurs over and over again, can experience a negative effect on their physical health. Not only that, but it can have a detrimental effect on our mental health, being linked to anxiety, depression, and hypertension. There is also evidence it can weaken our immune system (e.g. Segestom and Miller, 2006) , and change our experiences with chronic conditions such as pain (e.g. Abdallah and Geha, 2017).


So what can we do if we think that crucial part of us that tries so hard to keep us safe is triggering just a touch too easily, a bit like an over-enthusiastic fire alarm? The first objective is to notice it happening, which sounds simple, but is quite a skill, particularly if we've been living with it for some time. Strategies can then include breathing exercises, mindfulness, meditation, exercise, and seeking psychological support if feeling overwhelmed. Whilst the flight or fight response is a remarkable adaptation that allowed us to thrive and survive throughout history, in todays world it can be a hinderance when activated by modern stressors. By understanding how this response works and learning to manage it effectively, we can enhance our overall well-being and lead healthier, happier lives.

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