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The Fight or Flight Response

Fight or Flight – The Cause of Stress

The body’s answer to challenge or danger is the Fight or Flight response, or Arousal Response.  Whether the challenge is life threatening, a race to run, or a deadline to meet, our body ensures we are well equipped for it.

Our primitive response to a perceived threat can vary in level depending on the mind’s evaluation of it.

Fight or Flight can mean mild concern or it can mean blind panic.  This will depend on our perception of the perceived threat, and the amount of time we are exposed to it.

Furthermore, what one person sees as a threat, another may disregard entirely.  Nowadays, of course, we are seldom in any actual danger.  Most of our threats today are situations which are demanding or frustrating.

The intensity of the response will vary from person to person.  What one man finds, ‘a fun challenge’, another will find stressful.

Possible instances would be important challenges, such as the first day at a new job, being exposed to threat, such as being criticised, or struggling to meet unrealistic expectations we have for ourselves or those that others have for us.

All of us encounter possible stressors (causes of stress) in the course of our daily lives.  These threats are to our pride, prestige, self image, job security, etc.

How these threats affect us will depend on how each individual perceives the situation, and how that person copes with the situation.  The stressors which can cause the most harm don’t necessarily need to be major life changing events either.

In actual fact it is predominantly the energy we waste on trivial daily annoyances that make the largest impact on our health and well being. 

Things like being late for work, getting stuck in traffic, noise pollution, queues in supermarkets, etc.  All these things, when allowed to get on top of us, can set off the Fight or Flight.

With the mind and body so closely linked it is possible to set off the fight of flight with anticipatory emotions like impatience, anxiety, anger and fear.  All can produce the same nerve impulses and chemical reactions as being faced with a real challenge.

Such is the power of the mind, even thinking about stressful events can set off the Fight or Flight response. 

Stress will occur when the hypothalamus continually receives ‘Action Stations’ messages from various parts of the brain; and continues to prepare the body for action in anticipation.

When that action fails to take place undischarged Fight or Flight chemicals and muscular tension build up to produce stress.

When one reads the following details about exactly what occurs within our bodies when the hypothalamus sets off the fight or flight response, it isn’t surprising that such stress can cause so many problems and psychosomatic disorders.


Our story begins with the sense organs of sight or sound receiving, and passing on to the sensory cortex, signals from our surroundings.  The information received will be integrated with our memory and evaluated.

When the final evaluation is of a challenge or a threat the hypothalamus is activated.

In a fraction of a second, the hypothalamus sets off a string of bio-events within our bodies that enable us – in an instant – to fight or run.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline are produced by the adrenal glands.  They increase heart rate, raise blood pressure, increase our blood sugar levels and speed up our metabolic rate.

They will also increase the performance of our reflexes and our sense organs.  Our pupils will dilate so we can see more effectively.

We effectively get tunnel vision and stop seeing the big picture.

Thyroid hormones are produced by the thyroid gland.  These also increase the metabolic rate, increase the heart rate, raise blood pressure, and maximise our mental capabilities.

Cholesterol  also increase the heart rate, which raises the blood pressure still further, and so it pumps blood around the body faster.  It will also aid in blood clotting in the case of an injury, and boosts energy levels.

Cortisol is produced by the adrenal gland and is the body’s own steroid.  It will help to prevent the body from suffering allergic reactions which could inhibit our breathing.

This is at the expense of our immune system though (which is one of the reasons prolonged stress can be blamed for so much illness).

Endorphins are released. They are the body’s own pain killers.  Their job is to prepare us for potential injury.

The lungs dilate and we breath faster so as to take in more oxygen.

The digestive system slows down, or ceases altogether to enable blood to be diverted to the muscles.

The mouth becomes dry due to the absence of saliva. Gastric juice production may increase (feeling of burning in the pit of the stomach).  In extreme cases involuntary emptying of the bowels or stomach can occur.  The bladder may also become loose.

Blood vessels close to the skin surface will constrict and the blood will thicken to prepare for possible injury.  Red blood cells flood the bloodstream, carrying more oxygen to the muscles.  We will also perspire to remove excess heat if required.

The muscles will tense and be ready to fight or run.

All production of sex hormones stops.  People trying for a baby should deal with their stress levels first if they are struggling.

The liver releases sugar and fats into the bloodstream to provide fuel for quick energy.

The autonomic nervous system will speed up, slow down or stop some body systems so as to save energy for any physical exertion that may be required.  This includes the immune system!

All in all, quite a list of events

The initial stages of arousal will remain the same whether we are faced with a major or a minor challenge.

But under extreme, prolonged, or persistent pressure the body continues manufacturing extra quantities of stress chemicals.  This triggers further processes to maintain energy.

When this arousal continues the adrenal glands manufacture anti-inflammatory chemicals that simultaneously speed tissue repair while depressing the immune system.

If all these changes continue unabated the body will go on trying to adapt under ever increasing pressure.  Eventually it will begin to break down.

Perhaps in small ways to start with.  But over time it can result in many psychosomatic illnesses.  It can increase the chances of anything from a common cold, to ulcers, asthma, high blood pressure, angina, and even heart attacks or cancer.

In short, too much stress (Fight or Flight response) can kill you. 

And this is only the PHYSICAL reactions to stress!!!

Reason enough to take steps to controlling, and minimising stress levels.  So encouraging the parasympathetic nervous system to regain homeostasis (to you and me that means, a calm state of mind and body).

Effective Stress Management

Is so easy.  I have a recording that is the only scripted recording I produce.  Why?  It’s so amazingly good that I could do nothing better myself.  Provided by The Atkinson-Ball College of Advanced Hypnotherapy, read by me, it becomes the most effective stress management tool I have ever seen.

It’s twenty minutes long, has to be listened to twice a day, and after Four weeks you won’t recognise yourself – no matter how stressed you are today.

Get in touch and we can arrange a short chat to see how I can help.


Copyright  2000  John Freeman

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