You’re lying awake in bed at night, and you hear an unfamiliar sound. You’re driving and a car suddenly pulls out in front of you. You’re walking at night and you see someone step out of the shadows. As soon as these things happen you're on edge and even before we register what is going on our bodies become alert. This is because all these situations can trigger our fight or flight response but what exactly is it, can it be a good thing and why do our bodies do it?
The fight or flight response is our bodies trigger to danger and is designed to keep us safe and alert. It's a type of stress and it plays a major role in how our bodies deal with external threats, stress and danger in our environment. What happens is the eyes or ears (or both) send a signal to the amygdala area of the brain (this is the area that contributes to emotional processing). Once the amygdala interprets the sights and sounds and recognises danger it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus which is the part of the brain that releases adrenaline which starts the fight or flight response. It helps us work out whether we should stay (fight) or flee (flight) in dangerous situations. All this happens before we even have a chance to register it as our amygdala and hypothalamus work so well together. Which means we can get out of danger efficiently sometimes before we even have a chance to process what is going on.
Everyone’s body handles the fight or flight response differently and it varies between situations and external factors. Our bodies may go through all or some the following when we experience it:
- Your heart rate and blood pressure increase – which means you breathe faster and heavily which helps to move nutrients and oxygen out to the major muscle groups.
- You’re pale or have flushed skin – as your blood flow is being redirected you might experience feeling cool or your hands and feet get cold and clammy. Your face might be flushed because of blood and hormones circulating throughout your body.
- Blunt pain is compromised – if your sympathetic nervous system is triggered by combat or a collision, you might not feel your injuries until after your body has calmed down. An example of this is that after a car accident you often don’t feel pain until later.
- Dilated pupils – your pupils dilate to take in more light so you can see better.
- You’re on edge – your senses are heightened and you’re more observant so you can look and listen for things that might cause danger.
- Memories can be affected – during stressful events sometimes your memories can be altered. You may be able to remember the event super clearly or block it out and have no recollection of it.
- You’re tense or trembling – this is due to the stress hormones circulating throughout your body so you might feel tense or twitchy.
- Your bladder might be affected – it’s not uncommon to lose control of your bladder or bowels in really stressful or dangerous situations.
During fight or flight response our bodies are prioritising survival so anything that’s not important for immediate survival goes on the back burners. Things such as digestion, growth and reproductive hormone production and tissue repair are all halted. Even though the fight or flight response can kick in immediately it can take a while us to calm down somewhere between 20-30 minutes depending on the person.
Our fight or flight response is good and necessary for our survival, and we don’t just experience it regarding physical events but also psychological events such as public speaking. It can also sometimes kick in for no apparent reason such as in social situations, during an exam or even thinking about something we are scared about. This is where things get complicated, as it can start to impact our lives on a regular basis and even trigger panic attacks. As mentioned in Monday’s article ongoing stress can be detrimental for our health both long and short term. There are ways to treat this including practicing relaxation techniques or seeing a psychologist to help you work through these triggers and retraining your body not to react. While these things take time, they will be worth it in the long run and can help you to your life back.
While we should be aware that our bodies can use the fight or flight response against us. It's also to remember that without this response we wouldn’t be able to survive, and we should be thankful that our bodies have developed this mechanism to help us.
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