Have you ever wondered why being faced with a threat makes your heart beat faster and makes you breathe quicker?
This is part of the body’s natural response to threat, and what we call the “fight or flight” response. The fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, is a psychological reaction that occurs when faced with something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically. It is a normal response that people have had since the beginning of time.
As part of this reaction, the body does a number of things automatically to prepare itself for either quick action or escape. Certain hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released. This speeds your heart rate to pump more blood to your muscles and brain. You breathe faster to supply your body with more oxygen. The pupils in your eyes get larger so you can better see. And your digestion slows down so you can concentrate on more important things. When the perceived danger is gone, the systems return to their normal functions via a relaxation response.
However, for many today, the fight or flight response is activated in situations where it is neither appropriate to fight or run away. It is much more likely to be triggered by more complex and subtle concerns today, such as internal threats in the form of worries. When we feel anxious or fearful about a presentation, completing work tasks, exams, or being stuck in traffic, the fight or flight response is triggered and we experience the same physical symptoms designed to temporarily change the way the body is functioning to enable a rapid physical response. In times of chronic stress, these physical symptoms may persist as the relaxation response does not happen, causing damage to our bodies.
If you find yourself suffering from chronic stress, the first step may be to recognise the symptoms of anxiety for what they are and remind yourself they are not evidence of there being a threat. The next step may be to deal with the symptoms of anxiety. For example, calming your rapid breathing with deep breathing, or learning to relax your tense muscles, can counteract the fight-or-flight response and produce the relaxation response. If you would like to learn more about dealing with anxiety, you may want to see an individual psychologist or attend a group program for anxiety.
Written by Michelle Dean B.A. (Psych)(Hons); M Psych (Clin)