Fight or flight

 Content Editor

What is 'fight, flight or freeze'?
Any book you read about stress will refer to 'fight or flight' or 'fight, flight or freeze' as a survival mechanism that prepares you to either fight for survival or run away when you're threatened. 

It's your body's automatic response to danger – a series of dramatic physical changes designed to give you a burst of energy and strength. Once the danger is over, systems return to normal and you become physiologically relaxed again.

The physiological changes
When your body goes into the fight or flight state, the following changes happen automatically:
  • Heart: Your heart begins to beat faster and harder to pump blood containing oxygen and sugar to your major muscles to use for energy. You may feel your heart beating as you breathe more rapidly. 
  • Lungs: Your breathing rate increases and your airways dilate. More oxygen enters your blood. 
  • Ears: Your hearing and all of your senses become more acute. 
  • Eyes: Your pupils dilate to help you see better. Your peripheral vision is also heightened. 
  • Brain: Mental activity and alertness increase for quick decision making. 
  • Blood: Your blood flow to muscles will increase to prepare for flight. The blood will thicken to increase the availability of clotting factors and immune system cells in case of an injury. 
  • Legs and arms: Sugars and fats are converted for use as energy and sent to your major muscles to help you to fight or run away.
  • Skin and sweat glands: Sweating increases. Hands and feet often feel cold as blood supplies are diverted to the brain and muscles. Hairs stand on end as we experience goose pimples. Skin can turn pale. 
  • Salivary glands: There is a decreased flow of saliva. Your mouth can feel dry. 
  • Gut muscles: Gut activity slows as blood supply is reduced. This can affect digestion and cause digestion issues. 
  • Spleen: Contracts and empties red blood cells into the circulation. 
  • Kidneys: Reduced urine formation.
  • Liver and fat tissue: Glucose and fats mobilised for energy to fuel the muscles. 
These responses are regulated by the sympathetic nervous system and by hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenalin which are released into the blood stream. 

The process occurs very quickly and is not a conscious decision.

Physical threats
An ancient response to physical threats, fight or flight would have been very valuable to our prehistoric ancestors, as they faced physical danger many times throughout their short lives.

It still helps to protect us by heightening awareness and helping us deal with emergencies. For example, it enables us to react very quickly and slam on the brakes when someone runs in front of the car. However, once the acute stress is over, our bodies quickly return to normal. 

The problem is that these days most of us are more likely to have to cope with psychological threats and stressors, like pressure of deadlines, traffic queues, delays, disagreements at work and office politics. They're not situations where physical aggression or running away are the best answers – and yet our bodies react as if we're facing physical danger: with the fight or flight response.

Psychological threats
Our psychological threats and stressors are different for each of us, based on our experiences, coping mechanisms, how we view life, our rules and beliefs, values, boundaries and measures of what's too much and out of balance. 

As modern life becomes more pressured and complex, we add more and more psychological triggers to the list.
Constant threats – chronic stress
With the fight or flight physical changes, you're wired for action. You're ready to face the threats and do your best. Things that can trigger the fight or flight response:

Feeling threatened by:
  • being asked to do things you don't want to do
  • being asked to do things you can't do
  • working overtime
  • exams
  • unwanted change
Perceived threats or fears:
  • not being accepted
  • being embarrassed
  • being laughed at
  • being rejected
Some psychological threats and stressors:
  • pressures of deadlines
  • traffic queues
  • disagreements at work
  • office politics
We can be in and out of this fight or flight state many times throughout a day. This means we can be 'wired up' almost constantly – with dangerous consequences for our health. 

The worst problem is the response to psychological triggers, to simple, not truly life-threatening events. Often, there's no defined enemy to fight or run away from, and yet your body is on the alert and keyed-up for action. It's left with the hormones and chemicals that would have otherwise been quickly removed or used up during the physical reaction it expected. The fats released which are not used are likely to be restored in the lining of the arteries. This can increase blood pressure, making the heart work harder to pump blood around the body.

As your body works hard to prepare for physical activity it releases stored sugars, glucose, glycogen, nutrients and fats required for the process. This not only drains your body, it also depletes vital stores and takes further energy to release or restore anything converted which hasn't been used. Ineffective digestive and bowel functionality can also lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), constipation, diarrhoea, indigestion and stomach ulcers which are all commonly related to stress.

Stress also inhibits the immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds, flu, fatigue and infections.

If you feel you are suffering with the fight or flight state on a regular basis, it would be advisable to make sure you get good nutrition, hydration, exercise and relaxation to help to combat the effect.

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