The Fight or Flight Response

The body’s responses to fear provoking situations are controlled by the nervous system. This system has two components: the voluntary nervous system and the autonomic nervous system (which is involountary). The voluntary nervous system (also known as the somatic system), is made up of nerves which go to and control movement by connecting with muscles that then contract or relax. The voluntary nerves are also involved in input of sensory information. This voluntary nervous system sends information from your senses (eyes, ears, taste, touch and smell), to the brain, which processes the information and controls actions that require thought such as walking or moving your arm.

The autonomic nervous system is made up of the nerves that connect to your internal organs and glands, and controls all the automatic activities that take place in the body, such as breathing and digestion. The autonomic nervous system is divided into two components: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is designed to to prepare the body rapidly for fight or flight, as quickly as possible (almost immediately). When the danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system relaxes the body and returns it to normal functioning.

When the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is triggered, all unimportant non-essential activity in the body is put on hold. The sympathetic nervous system boosts the activity of all body systems required to either fight or flee from an external, dangerous threat. This response involves many complex reactions within the human body. Some of the most obvious changes that take place are:

  • Increased heartbeat. This pumps more blood to the muscles in preparation to fight or run away.
  • Stronger heartbeat. This sends increased blood to the muscles in preparation for fight or flight.
  • Deeper and faster breathing. This makes sure that there is a large supply of oxygen to the muscles in preparation for fight or flight. This explains the panting associated with fear or strong excitement.
  • Increased muscular tension. This readies the body’s musculature for any action that is needed.
  • Cold sweat. This is in preparation for the warm sweat of actual vigorous muscular activity.
  • Constriction of the peripheral blood vessels near the surface of the body. This increases the blood pressure and explains the pallor of fear.
  • Shivering and raising of hairs. This conserves heat and protects the body from the increased threat of cold caused by the constriction of the peripheral blood vessels.
  • Dilatation of the pupils. This allows a better view of threatening dangers and explains why eyes are said to be “wide with fear”.
  • Suspension of digestion. This allows for additional blood to be supplied to the muscles.
  • Dry mouth due to decreased flow of saliva. This accompanies the decreased flow of stomach juices as digestive activity is suspended.
  • Tendency towards voiding of the bladder and bowels. This frees the body for strenuous activity.
  • Suppression of the pain response and immune system. This prevents pain, discomfort and swelling, which could delay a rapid escape.

When the sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response, the body releases increased amounts of adrenaline (epinephrine) and related chemicals into the blood stream. This chemical response provides the body with added strength, stamina and ability to respond rapidly. This is what it is that helps soldiers to survive in battle, enables athletes to perform better, and individuals who are faced with danger, to react more quickly and effectively. In the modern civilised world we face far fewer phsical threats than our ancestors did.

The most frequent threats we face today are psychological in nature. For example: the loss of status, prestige, love, sense of belonging and significance. These psychological threats do not require a rapid physical response. The problem is that, unfortunately, our bodies respond to any threat, psychological or physical, as if it does require an immediate physical response. Therefore if you are embarrassed and you feel threatened by what other people think, then your body responds by triggering the fight or flight response. This triggers all the responses described above preparing the body either to fight or runaway. If you find yourself experiencing a panic attack in this situation of psychological threat, you are actually experiencing what is an overreaction of the fight or flight response. A comparison of a list of the responses in the fight and flight mechanism, to a list of the symptoms which are the characteristic features of a panic attack, shows that a panic attack is simply an exaggeration of the bodies normal responses which are triggered by the fight or flight response.

It is important to be aware of these concepts when you are trying to treat anxiety. It is important to remember that psychological threats can lead to physical responses and to try not to respond or overreact to psychological threats. This will enable you to treat your nervousness and worry.

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