The fight-or-flight response is an automatic physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful attack or threat to survival. It is triggered by the release of the adrenaline hormone, also known as epinephrine, which prepares your body to either stay and deal with the threat, or to run away to safety. So how can you control your fight-or-flight response, ensuring that it works to your advantage during a conflict?
The fight-or-flight response plays a critical role in how we deal with stress and danger in our environment. It is often normal to feel an overwhelming sense of anxiety and discomfort during this stress response, which can be problematic and impede on your ability to respond favourably during a conflict. In order to overcome this nervousness and use the adrenaline surge to your advantage, you need to understand the purpose and function of the fight-or-flight response. By understanding why these feelings take place, you are able to embrace the sensation; appropriately utilising this priceless survival reaction and deciding for yourself whether you fight or flee – avoiding the motionless action of freezing under stress.
Once you understand how and why your body reacts to danger, your next step is to rehearse and become proficient in whichever scenario you intent on combating, giving you the ultimate fight-response plan. This training may be in public speaking, fitness & fighting, disaster management or even defence against an active shooter scenario. There are so many stressful situations that you may wish to prepare for, making it almost impossible to tackle them all. So our aim today is to provide you with a basic system that will hopefully ensure a more successful outcome when a potentially frightening experience presents itself.
So What Exactly Happens During The Fight-or-Flight Response?
Well, in response to acute stress, the body effectively becomes aroused and suddenly releases hormones, priming your body for action. This triggers the release of catecholamines, which are located on top of your kidneys – and includes adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones prepare your body to either fight or flee.
- Adrenaline – otherwise known as epinephrine, this is a hormone that works on improving the function of your body’s alpha and beta receptors – the heart, lungs, and arteries of skeletal muscles. It increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and boosts energy supplies
- Noradrenaline – otherwise known as norepinephrine, this is a hormone that works on improving the function of your body’s alpha receptors – the arteries. It increases heart rate and blood pressure by narrowing blood vessels, helping to break down fats and increase blood sugar levels, providing more energy to the body
So by priming your body for action, you are better prepared to perform under pressure. The stress (or adrenaline) created by the situation can actually be helpful, making it more likely that you will cope effectively with the threat. However, in order to cope effectively you must understand that these distressed feelings are here to help, and should be embraced.
All of the body sensations produced during a flight-or-flight scenario are happening for good reasons, but may be experienced as uncomfortable when you do not know why they are happening. Let’s take a look at what will happen when your body releases catecholamines.
- Exceptional Thinking – a faster thinking ability will help you to evaluate danger and make rapid decisions, but you may find it difficult to focus on anything else
- Lightheadedness – if the additional oxygen produced during your response is not used up, you may begin to feel dizzy
- Eyes & Ears – the pupils will dilate, allowing more light to enter the eye. This improves visual acuity and scanning ability. You must try to pay attention to your entire surroundings and avoid tunnel vision. At the same time, your ears “perk up” and your hearing becomes sharper
- Dry Mouth – as energy is diverted towards the muscles, the digestive system shuts down and the mouth may dry up
- Rapid Breathing – faster breathing increases blood oxygenation, which powers the muscles. This prepares the body for a fight
- Increased Heart Rate – a faster heart beat feeds more blood to the muscles and enhances your flight (or flee) ability
- Adrenal Glands – the body releases adrenaline, signalling other parts of the body and preparing them for danger. This includes a temporarily reduction towards your perception of pain, allowing you to focus on the fight
- Butterflies – nausea in the stomach may result as blood is diverted away from the digestive system
- Bladder Urgency – during times of severe stress, it is often normal for bladder muscles to become relaxed. This is because sympathetic nerves stimulate smooth muscle contractions in the bladder
- Sweaty Palms – this is part of the bodies rapid cooling process, as it prepares for a heated battle
- Cold Extremities – the hands and feet may become cold as blood vessels in the skin contract. This happens as blood is forced towards your major muscle groups
- Trembling or Shaking – this is in fact your muscles tensing in preparation to fight or flee. The trembling – particularly when stood still – is the bodies way of staying ready and primed for action
Once the fight (or threat) is over, your body should return to its natural state after 20 to 30 minutes.
The Incredible Benefits of Adrenaline
When your body decides it’s time to dump adrenaline into your bloodstream – standard operating procedure during the fight-or-flight response – you enjoy a heightened state of physical and mental alertness with lots of advantageous benefits.
- Blood Enrichment – your adrenaline hormones trigger a response that causes your blood vessels to contract, redirecting this blood towards your major muscle groups in an effort to save your life. At the same time, your muscles are pumped with higher levels of oxygen that are needed to physically fight your threat or do a runner.
- Superhuman Pain Resistance – as well as allowing a quick escape from danger or a mighty fight, adrenaline decreases the body’s ability to feel pain. Since your body is in a state of survival, it pushes pain aside for the time being, allowing you to focus on the fight rather than slowing down due to injury or suffering. The adrenaline effectively puts itself between your brain and your pain, blocking the injury out until the threat has been subdued.
- Maximum Strength Potential – your muscles, your eyes and your ears all get a level-up as adrenaline hormones are let loose. Adrenaline causes a noticeable increase in strength and performance, as well as heightened awareness which can last for up to an hour. This is thanks to a harder working heart and lungs, which sends more oxygen to your major muscles and provides a temporary boost of strength.
- Laser Focus – in addition to the muscles, the brain gets extra oxygenation too, allowing you to think faster on your feet. When the body is flooded with adrenaline, the brain is engaged, focused, and able to evaluate danger more quickly.
Fight-or-Flight Stages: What Comes Next?
The fight-or-flight response is the first stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). GAS describes the pattern of responses that the body goes through after being prompted by a stressor. There are three stages.
THE ALARM REACTION STAGE – this is the stress response which we have already discussed; flight-or-flight, and typically lasts only a number of seconds.
Many of us have experienced this stress response while suddenly swerving a car to avoid an accident. Under this scenario, you will most likely react in a split second – heart rate and respiration will rapidly increase, and you may begin to shake and become clammy – but once the threat has passed, your body should begin to calm down and start to repair itself.
THE RESISTANCE STAGE – if the perceived stress continues, the body may remain activated at a higher metabolic level than what is normal. This takes place in order to offset the persistent stress. You may in fact not even realise this, but the body’s resources are being depleting at a rapid rate as it remains on high alert for an extended period of time. If the body is unable to recover due to a continuous threat (or stress), it will eventually become exhausted, leading to fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
THE EXHAUSTION STAGE – this is a result of prolonged stress; a physical, emotional and mental drain comes into effect whereby the body no longer has the strength or energy to fight stress. This also weakens the immune system, often placing the body at risk of stress-related illnesses. Symptoms include:
- Fatigue – extreme tiredness
- Burnout – physical or mental collapse
- Depression – feelings of severe despondency and dejection
- Anxiety – feelings of worry, nervousness, or unease
- and Decreased Stress Tolerance
Coping With The Stress Response
It is not possible to avoid every threat or eliminate every stressor, so you must be able to find ways in which you can cope with acute stress. In order to fight-or-flight at will, you must understand everything which we have discussed up until now, and embrace the adrenaline surge when it presents itself. Understand why your body reacts the way that it does, and don’t become flustered, but rather try to remain calm and use your enhanced senses to your advantage.
Readiness and confidence in your ability to react will also ensure the outcome that you desire. If you are concerned as to how you may respond towards and a mugging for example, or an active shooter scenario, then regularly attend training courses in self-defence and weapons handling techniques until you become confident enough to handle yourself. Invest time into training and make sure that you are progressing in your ability to overcome scenarios that you fear. These are just examples, but the same system applies to public speaking, bullying, home invasions, and all other fight-or-flight scenarios that concern you.
I firmly believe that healthy lifestyle choices act as coping mechanisms in response to both fight-or-flight situations, as well as dealing with exhaustion as a result of continuous stress. These lifestyle choices are as follows:
- The Power of Positive Thinking – research has proven that positive thoughts can create real value in your life, and help to build skills that last much longer than just a smile
- Cheerfulness in the Face of Adversity – applying yourself in tough situations to being someone who can see the best in things and to being optimistic, positive and hopeful
- Regular Exercise and Fitness – there is substantial evidence proving that aerobic and cardiovascular activity can have a positive effect on your mood and calm you down, while also improving your chances of success during a hostile threat scenario
- Well-Balanced and Healthy Diet – a poor diet can deplete your energy and cause stress or anxiety, which may in turn stimulate adrenaline rushes. Eating healthy foods and snacks, and drinking lots of water will undoubtably counter these negative effects
- Avoid Alcohol & Drugs – it is proven that recreational drugs and excessive alcohol abuse aggravates anxiety and makes you more prone to unwanted adrenaline rushes
- Readiness and Confidence in your Ability to React – and finally, as we have already discussed, progressive training and building of confidence in areas of concern are far more likely to put you at ease and provide positive results when a flight-or-flight scenario takes place
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