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The Fight-or-Flight Response

Updated: Jan 18


The alarm clock keeps ringing…. Oh God, I just closed my eyes and its already 7 am!

I am soo not ready to get up…My head is foggy, my body is aching… I desperately need my coffee!


Are you familiar with this gross feeling in the morning? Sleep disturbance, digestive disorders, difficulty maintaining sexual arousal, loss of libido, anxiety, high blood pressure, Chronic fatigue, joint pain etc.… These are only some of the dis-eases conventional medicine is now recognizing can be caused and intensified by stress.


Many of the significant stresses we encounter today trigger the full activation of our fight – or – flight response, but we are unable, or it is inappropriate for us, to take the physical action required to release us back into functioning normally through the relaxation response.


What is the fight–or–flight response?


This phenomenon was first described in 1915 by an American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon (1871 to 1945) It is also known as the fright, fight or flight response, the stress response, hyperarousal and the acute stress response.

When a person (or animal) is in a relaxed state, the body functions in what is known as the relaxed state or relaxation response or homeostasis, when a stimulus is perceived by the brain, which could include an awareness of danger, a message is sent from the sensory cortex of the brain through the hypothalamus to the brain stem. The hypothalamus and the pituitary, the adrenal glands manufacture and release the stress hormones dopamine, epinephrine (or adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and primarily cortisol.


Once these hormones are released into the body, they facilitate immediate physical reactions associated with the preparation of violent muscular action; to flee from or to fight off the perceived threat.


These reactions include:


· Heart rate speeds up.

· Breathing speeds up and becomes shallow.

· Stomach and upper-intestinal action (digestion) stop.

·The overall effect on the sphincters of the body (either opens or slams shut).

· Constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body.

· The liberation of nutrients for muscular action.

· Dilation of blood vessels for increased blood flow to muscles (blood and glucose rush to the muscles).

· Inhibition of Lacrimal gland (responsible for tear production and salivation).

· Dilation of pupils.

· Relaxation of the bladder (and sometimes evacuation of the colon).

· Sexual function ceases.

· Acceleration of instantaneous reflexes.

· Blood pressure increases.

· Adrenal secretions flush into the bloodstream.


Within seconds, the body’s full energy potential is realized so one can deal effectively with the perceived threat, either by fighting it or fleeing from it!


In an appropriate stress response situation when the perceived threat is gone, (once the predator has been outrun or fought off) our bodies are designed to return to homeostasis (normal function via the relaxation response). But in our times of chronic stress, this often doesn’t happen and we remain in the fight-or-flight reaction for prolonged periods, causing serious damage to our body.


Stress responses are also sometimes a result of mental or emotional disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in which the individual shows a stress response when remembering a past trauma and panic disorders in which the stress response is activated by the catastrophic misinterpretations of bodily sensations.


Inappropriate and extended activation of the stress response in humans causes long term physiological and psychological harm.


Some of the problems caused by prolonged stress response are:


· Alcohol and drug dependencies.

· Anorexia.

· Anxiety and panic disorders.

· Asthma, allergies, skin diseases.

· Cancer.

· Chronic fatigue syndrome.

· Chronic pain.

· Constipation, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome.

· Depressed immune system, increased likelihood of colds and infections.

· Depression and suicide.

· Diabetes.

· Difficulty maintaining sexual arousal, loss of libido.

· Difficulty urinating, bladder infection, bladder disease.

· Erectile dysfunction.

· Fibromyalgia.

· Headaches and migraines.

· Heart disease, heart attack.

· High blood pressure.

· High cholesterol.

· Hypertension.

· Joint Pain.

· Multiple Sclerosis.

· Muscle stiffness, backaches, neck pain.

· Sleep disturbances.

· Stroke.

· Ulcers and digestive disorders.


When we understand the damaging effects and the enormous negative impact that prolonged and unmanaged stress can have in our lives and on our health, we easily realize how important it is to develop effective stress management techniques.


In the hectic over-stimulated lifestyles many of us live, it is a fact that most people are highly stressed, have poor stress management skills and function primarily from a fight-or-flight response all the time.

Most people will discuss stress and depression as being a natural and normal part of human existence in our modern society. Few are even vaguely aware that, while we have little control over the hectic pace of our world, we do have ultimate control over how stress affects us individually.


When the prolonged effects of stress take their toll on mental and physical health, most people will seek help from their doctor. While many doctors are starting to consider a wider variety of natural treatments like creative art therapy, sound therapy, meditation, yoga or aromatherapy, general practitioners still tend to prescribe antidepressants where stress, anxiety or depression are involved.


In many cases, antidepressants are the only treatment used, providing a band-aid solution while the root of the problem is seldom addressed. From the standpoint of long-term holistic health therapist, the use of antidepressants alone to treat stress-related disorders inevitably leads to a wide range of ongoing and often catastrophic problems. Because the issues that are causing the stress do not go away and the patient does not learn the skills required to manage stress long-term.


Stress-related illness is the epidemic of our modern age and as our lifestyles continue to propel us further into situations that perpetuate stress, it is essential that a greater understanding of the cause and effects of stress and the most effective, healthful and natural ways to manage stress are made easily available to all people.

Learn to manage stress in our lives is a five-step process:


1. Develop an understanding of how stress affects us physiologically and psychologically.

2. Learn to recognize the symptoms of stress in our bodies.

3. Understand what our stress triggers are.

4. Develop techniques for releasing stress (returning our bodies to the relaxation response).

5. Learn how to avoid or minimize the situations in our lives that cause us stress.


And remember: No healing can take place, for any person on any level, while they are in the fight-or-flight response.



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