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Fight or Flight, Part 1

One of the most primordial human reflexes is the fight or flight reaction. It is our own natural alarm system. Let’s say you come face to face with a hungry grizzly bear in your campsite. First you hear that huffing/grunting sound that says he’s smelled you. Then he comes into view, stands there looking directly at you, and emits a deafening growl but doesn’t move. Within a second or two your heart starts to pound. Suddenly you’re breathing heavier, your fingers and toes feel numb and start to tremble, your mouth becomes dry, you feel a little nauseous, and you may feel like you’re going to pee yourself. This reaction has occurred in all vertebrates since the time of the dinosaurs.

This two-part article will explore both the physiological causes and effects of fight or flight, and it will wrap up with physical and practical usage of the theory to plan for stressful situations, which will be presented in part two of the series. The proverbial bear could be a real bear, or it could be a bank robber, or a home intruder, or a mob of scared citizens, or any other thing which creates anxiety and could potentially be a danger to your safety or life. The goal is to understand the body and the mind to determine the best ways to combat uncontrollable situations.

Also called the hyperarousal syndrome or the acute stress syndrome, the fight-or-flight response was first described by Harvard Universities Department of Physiology chairman Walter Bradford Cannon in his book, The Wisdom of the Body, first published in 1932. Basically there are two different systems of nerves in the human body. The parasympathetic or autonomic nervous system controls all the functions we don’t have to think about. Baseline heart beating, reflexes, salivation, hormone secretion, and urine production are but a few of its functions. The sympathetic or adrenergic nervous system, however, involves the release of packaged and stored stimulatory chemicals called catecholamines. The best-known catecholamine, of course, is adrenaline, also called epinephrine. Other common ones are norepinephrine and dopamine, generally referred to as neurotransmitters. They are considered hormones and are produced in the adrenal glands, two specialized structures that sit on top of each kidney. A cache of hormones is held within the adrenal glands, and some is delivered to nerve cells and packaged in nerve cell membranes to be used for specific purposes such as mood and alertness. When a specific stimulus becomes present, the adrenal glands dump their stored chemicals into the blood stream, and receptors throughout the body get activated. The nerve cells dump their stored neurotransmitters at the same time too.

So there you are staring down a bellowing bear that was simply looking for a snack. Your brain realizes the potential danger and your adrenal glands start to pour catecholamines into your blood and the spaces between your nerve cells in your brain are flooded with stimulatory hormones. What happens to your body and why? Let’s take a look at each organ you will and won’t need to fight or fly.

Increased Heart Rate (Tachycardia)

Cardiac output, or how well the heart works, is simply heart rate times blood volume. So you can effectively increase oxygen to where you need it by increasing the amount of blood in the system or increasing the rate at which the existing volume is delivered. The bear is there, and a blood transfusion or eating a lot of red meat to increase red blood cells takes too long. Increasing the heart rate works just fine to deliver the oxygen when you need it.

Increased Respiratory Rate (Tachypnea or Panting)

With your heart pounding, you’re going to need more oxygen in the lungs to recycle into the blood your heart’s pumping. The more times you breathe per minute, the more oxygen is available.

Fingers and Toes Tingle

Blood is shunted away from the periphery or extremities and directed to muscles. In order to fight or run, the muscles in your arms and legs will need more oxygen than usual, at the expense of your fingers and toes. It is more severe in smokers, as nicotine produces vasoconstriction in small blood vessels.

Hands Tremble

Nerve cells control muscles. When you want to pick up an object, you first think it, and then the nerve transmits the impulse to the muscles that do the work. There is a baseline amount of muscle tension so that your muscles, even when relaxed, are at the ready for a command. When the nerve synapses are flooded with stimulatory hormones, that baseline tension is increased so that you are primed to fight or run. If you don’t do either, the muscles show their excitation with uncontrolled tremors.

Nausea, Hunger or Stomach Discomfort

Digestion requires a substantial blood supply to your stomach and quite a bit of energy, as does the propulsion of food through the intestines. Just like your fingers and toes, blood is also shunted away from the gastrointestinal track during acute stress, causing all digestion to temporarily stop.

Vision Changes

The effect of the hyperawareness syndrome on your eyes is that it stimulates the iris, or muscles that dilate your pupils. This is called mydriasis and allows more light in so that you can see well. It also floods the rods and cones in the center of your eye, giving a sort of tunnel vision and decreasing peripheral vision. It gives increased clarity of the object that started the event—in this case, the bear.

You Feel Like You Have to Urinate

All the sphincters in your body are stimulated by the stress response. A sphincter is a muscle that controls things like your bladder and rectum, and when the bladder sphincter is stimulated, it actually relaxes, causing the autonomic control that keeps you dry usually to be overridden. We’ve all heard “he was so scared he peed his pants.” Now you know why.

Your Mind Races

You will need to make quick decisions. The flooded nerve cells though can overflow to memories, feelings, and sensations that reside in the brain.

So now that you understand what’s happening with your body, what do you do with it? Caveman (another example—it’s not necessary to believe in cavemen to take some information out of this article) had it easy. He either ran for his life, literally, or stood his ground and fought to the death—either his own or his aggressors. If he lived by either running or winning, he was exhausted because all of the baseline amounts of stimulatory chemicals were depleted, so he slept. If caveman got angry with another caveman, the response was the same. He either ran or fought. Then he slept and woke up at baseline ready to go again. Today, however, we have been trained for generations to control the response to stress, anger, aggression, and fear. How we react to the flood of stimulatory hormones produced by the bear, or a rude salesperson, or an aggressive boss is largely a habit developed in childhood. Some of us react with violent retaliation. Some are reduced to immobility or tears. Some become sarcastic. And some are so disturbed by the feeling of the response that they don’t know what to do or how to act. Some react generally to every situation in the same way. They become aggressive or they run no matter what the stimulus is. They never learn to control the immediate response to the stimulus and automatically react the way they have been programmed all their life. It takes desire, time, and practice, but you can retrain yourself to have initial control, utilizing the gifts nature has given your body, and reprogram your response to the fight or flight stimulus. You really would not want to react to the bear the same way as you would the census taker irritating you with an uninvited visit.

In society we have been programmed to control our feelings beyond reason. It has been drilled into us to not say what we really feel, to always be “polite,” not to fight everyone that angers you, not to run away but stand up “like a man” and take it. This has produced a population of individuals with high blood pressure, ulcers, and psychological issues ranging from depression, insomnia, and anxiety to psychosis. We produce the stimulatory hormones but then don’t use them. It takes a long time for the body to metabolize them once produced if they were not needed because we controlled the response. Over time this damages our body and mind, accelerating heart disease, strokes, diabetes, blood pressure, mental problems, and many other physiologic issues. So what can you do about it?


Exercise recreates the physical response to stress and accelerates stimulatory hormonal metabolism. Routine exercise helps for all the daily overproduction of these hormones, but vigorous exercise after an acute stress stimulus can significantly decrease the negative effects from the event.

Have a Preconceived or Contingency Plan

Consider a course of action based on potential risks or dangerous events in daily life. If you’re living in the woods where bears travel, know how to act when faced with one. Don’t wait until it happens to consider researching what to do. Try to avoid situations that have stimulated the response in the past. Consider moving a more isolated environment and work for yourself if you know nosey neighbors and bosses push your buttons beyond reasonable control.

Avoid Over-the-Counter Stimulatory Drugs

Using chemical compounds that act like or stimulate the stress response artificially primes your body for the reaction. Then the fight or flight response becomes over accentuated when it occurs. Many typical things in daily life contain stimulants you want to avoid. This includes caffeine—certain pain relievers contain caffeine, as well as coffee, tea, many soft drinks, and chocolate. Nicotine is a very powerful stimulatory drug in your cigarettes. Yohimbine is marketed as an aphrodisiac and stimulant. Weight loss pills often stimulants like ephedrine, phenylephenadrine, hoodia, ginseng, and nettle. Certain decongestants, significantly pseudoephrine and phenylpropanolamine, are also stimulatory.

Remember the Basics

Eat well-balanced meals. Give your body the building blocks it needs to repair itself and metabolize whatever it produces. Drink a lot of fluids, as most degradation products are eliminated thorough the kidneys. Limit alcohol as the liver is also very important in making the enzymes that metabolize products you make. Get enough sleep. Down time allows your psyche to relax and repair. Constant mental input increases stress hormones.

Keep a Pet

Studies show people with pets live longer, have lower blood pressure, and sleep better. Maybe a dog is man’s best friend after all.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

Sometimes you can’t worry about hurting a friend’s feelings. If you do, he’s probably not a good friend. Take care of yourself before you take care of others. Remember, you can only give what you have.

So the next time you’re in the woods, be prepared. Don’t react to your body’s defense mechanisms out of habit, but intelligently and with control. Then when the crisis is over, have a plan to use up the chemicals you made and don’t require anymore. Understand your body and why things happen. Break old habits and choose new healthier ones. Live long and be happy. Enjoy something every day. Look for a more in-depth approach in part two of this article series to help prepare you for a real-life fight-or-flight situation and planning.

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