Fight or Flight

A lion creeps, undetected, toward a grazing gazelle. Suddenly, the gazelle’s head perks up, she’s heard something. The lion, not wanting to miss its chance, leaps forward and begins the chase. Although the gazelle is caught off guard it is agile and is quick to flee, all the more quicker in its state of panic. The lion, understanding innately that it can’t out-sprint the gazelle channels all its energy into a final pounce toward the terrified antelope.

Imagine we were able to freeze this scene at this very moment. We were able to take blood samples of both predator and prey. We tested the blood for hormone levels. We would find something interesting. In both the lion and the gazelle, the levels of the hormone adrenaline would be very much higher than usual. This hormone is allowing the lion and the gazelle to act in way that maximises both their chance of survival. It is making their bodies respond in a way that helps one to hunt and the other to flee. This effect of adrenaline is known as the fight or flight response. The physiology of both hunter and hunted are acting in the same way.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, many of our modern human problems are a result of living now in safe and secure environments, when in our past we evolved in dangerous and difficult environments. Destruction, disaster and deadly disease exist on the news, in our past and in our subconsciousness, but they are rare visitors to us today. All around the world, people are living longer and healthier lives than their parents and grandparents. But with the rise in our physical circumstances, psychological disorders have also risen.

Like the lion and the gazelle, when you feel threatened or angry, adrenaline will be released. This will have some or all of the following effects:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Fast, shallow breathing
  • Tunnel vision
  • Sweaty palms (increase in sweating in general)
  • Blood rushing to the large muscles in the legs and arms (to help with running)

These changes are crucial for the hunter or the panicked prey. They are very handy for the fighter, threatened by a foe. They are usually less helpful for the office worker preparing to give a speech. They aren’t helpful at all for attending a party. In our safe modern lives, the fight or flight response is often less an asset and is more a hindrance.

It gets worse for some. The fight or flight mechanism can get habitually triggered off by inappropriate stimuli. People with panic disorder panic because of the thought of panicking. Their mind is on the look out for evidence that their body is about to go into fight or flight mode. Obviously, this state of hypervigilance makes it only more likely that a panic attack will occur.

For people who have been traumatised or who have developed phobias, the fight or flight response gets set off by inappropriate triggers. Things like loud noises or safe animals and situations can become objects of terror. The sufferer is not in control of the fight or flight response and can’t just snap out of it.

What is the answer for modern sufferers of an overly sensitive fight or flight response? What should one do if their fight or flight response gets triggered by an otherwise safe stimulus? The way most people cope at first is by avoiding triggers. Staying at home. Choosing jobs, or residences that are less likely to involve encounters with triggers. Avoiding parties or large crowds. This can work for a time, but ultimately anxiety continues to pursue you, the fight or flight response becoming ever more sensitive.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offers an alternative and effective way for dealing with anxiety. The most important component of CBT is exposure. Exposure means staying in the presence of the triggering stimuli for long enough to get used to it. Through repeated small exposures to the feared trigger, the body and mind become stronger and less reactive.

Beating the fight or flight response in this way means changing your perspective. Instead of being the timid gazelle, grazing in anxiety, waiting in fear for a lion to strike, you become a hunter. Facing your fears, confronting the feared stimuli (Lion) until it ceases to have control over you.

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