Fight, Flight, or Homeostasis?
How do we know what not to fear?
Most of us fear the things that are legitimately dangerous in life: Driving on an icy road during a winter storm, standing at the edge of a huge cliff, or encountering a predatory animal like a snake or bear in nature.
But what about those things that cause us fear but aren’t really dangerous? For example, going to a large social event, giving a presentation to a large group of people, or getting on a plane.
Our bodies are built to help us handle truly dangerous situations. The response that occurs — called fight or flight — when we are in these situations helps us move faster, better, and stronger. Used sparingly, the physical symptoms of fight-or-flight won’t hurt us.
Unfortunately, when the response is activated too often, those repeated physical symptoms can hurt us.
Ahead, we’ll discuss how you can essentially learn how to turn that fight-or-flight response off when it doesn’t need to be in use. First, however, it’s important to know why and how fight-or-flight occurs. So, let’s begin there.
Walter Bradford Cannon, an American physiologist at Harvard in the early 1900s, originally coined the term “fight or flight.” The American Institute of Stress defines the fight or flight response as:
“A physiological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically.”
Once the mind acknowledges the presence of something terrifying, the release of certain hormones is at the heart of activating the fight and flight response. From there, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, causing physical changes in your body that prepare you to either fight or flee. We’ll go over both of these processes further on.
The fight or flight response keeps you safe, just as it kept all of our ancestors safe tens of thousands of years ago. When you are faced with a serious and imminent danger, it is imperative that your body be able to react quickly and effectively.
For this reason, the fight or flee response is not something that we are in conscious control of (for the most part). Rather, it is an automatic response that occurs within our brains and bodies essentially without our consent, an acute stress response — sort of like the anti-lock braking system on your car that automatically pump in short bursts when the car encounters a patch of ice on the road.
The fight-or-flight response starts in the brain. Before the physical reactions of this process can take place, your brain needs to recognize that there is a clear and present danger. This happens with help from your senses and from there, through a series of hormone releases.
First, your eyes and ears are the first of your senses to notice a danger. In this case, let's say the danger is a grizzly bear that you encounter while on a hike in the woods. Your eyes see the bear, and your ears hear the bear rustling toward you through the bushes. These two senses send signals to your brain. Specifically, the signals are sent to your brain's emotion processing center: the amygdala.
Next, your amygdala processes the information sent by the eyes and ears. It informs the hypothalamus, a part of your brain that's often called the “command center” that there’s immediate danger afoot. Your hypothalamus controls the autonomic nervous system (more on this later). It alerts the autonomic nervous system by way of a system called the HPA Axis.
The HPA Axis
The HPA Axis, or hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, involves a series of glands that are part of the nervous and endocrine systems and that are involved in fight or flee.
Everything starts with the hypothalamus — remember, this is the command center of the brain. The hormonal process goes like this:
The autonomic nervous system is a functional division of the broader nervous system that each one of our bodies possess. It is made up of two subsystems, one of which (the sympathetic nervous system) takes on the responsibilities of fight or flight by using the cortisol produced by the adrenal glands.
When discussing the autonomic nervous system, the keyword here is autonomic, which means involuntary or unconscious. It’s an important concept to note because it tells us that this particular division of the overall nervous system is autonomous or acts on its own. In other words, you don’t need to tell your autonomic nervous system to do its job — nor can you.
The autonomic nervous system has the power to control three types of cells in the body:
For purposes of explaining fight or flight, let’s take a closer look at the two main subsystems that make up the autonomic nervous system: The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Sympathetic Nervous System: In Charge of Fight and Flight
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) handles the fight or flight response.
This system is located in the middle portion of the spinal cord and nearby. From here, it connects to various tissues throughout the body — any of those that are connected to the three types of cells controlled by the overall autonomic nervous system. Remember those? They are the gland, cardiac muscle, and smooth cells.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System: In Charge of Rest and Digest
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) handles what’s called the “rest and digest” response (more on this below).
In contrast to the central location of the SNS along the spinal cord, the PNS begins either at the top or bottom of the spinal cord, and from there, it is also connected throughout the body to various gland, cardiac muscle, and smooth cells, which it can control autonomously.
Fight or flight and rest and digest are both systems that can occur at any given time within your body. In fact, they often "take turns" depending on your situation and state of mind.
Let's take a look at how they work in relation to each other.
You’ll notice that both of these systems control smooth muscles. It’s crucial here not to confuse these muscles with skeletal muscles.
Skeletal muscles are the muscles that you are probably most familiar with. They are attached to your bones and joints. They are what you “work out” at the gym. And they are what contribute to your overall shape.
Skeletal muscles are also voluntary, which means we consciously decide when they move (for the most part). You'll recall that smooth muscles, by contrast, are involuntary. We can't control them.
This makes sense, after all. Smooth muscles aren't connected to our bones or joints. They are connected to our organs. Specifically, for example, they are located within the organs of the digestive system. This means they are essentially in control of how food moves through your digestive organs like your stomach and intestines.
Smooth muscles also surround blood vessels, which means they can dictate where blood flow moves within your body.
Why is this important?
Well, it’s important because both the SNS and the PNS have dominion over these smooth muscles (and cardiac muscles and glands). Therefore, how these muscles operate on a regular basis will depend on which system (the SNS/fight or flight system or the PNS/rest and digest system) is active.
Example of the Sympathetic Nervous System at Work
Let's say you woke up in the middle of the night after hearing a large crash of glass in your living room. You are on high alert. It's safe to say that your sympathetic nervous system or your "fight or flight system" is now in charge.
Although there's no way of knowing that these functions are going on, when you are in this state, your sympathetic nervous system is sending all sorts of messages to the cells it controls.
In terms of your heart, the SNS will, for instance, manipulate the smooth muscles around your digestive organs to send blood away from digestion and to other muscles that are more important right now — namely, those skeletal muscles that help you move. Digestion simply isn’t a priority right now.
At the same time, the SNS manipulates your cardiac muscles (remember, it controls those too) to boost your heart output. This essentially makes your heart pump harder and faster.
Finally, your SNS sends messages to your gland cells. For example, it will manipulate the sweat glands to produce more sweat, which helps cool you down and keeps you moving when and as you need to in this difficult situation.
More Physical Symptoms of Fight or Flight
Other reactions may occur when your fight or flight (SNS) system is active as well. For example, your SNS can:
Let’s look at another example.
Example of the Parasympathetic Nervous System at Work
Say you’ve just returned home from a long day at work, during which you had to give a big presentation. The presentation went great. You got an amazing review. And now it’s over, and you’re home.
It’s easy to see that, here, your PNS should be active. You are “resting and digesting,” conserving and storing energy. There are no threats, and you are in a state of what Walter Bradford Cannon called homeostasis in his book The Wisdom of the Body, published in 1930. Homeostasis is the state of equilibrium necessary for survival.
When homeostasis is going on internally in your body, those smooth muscles, cardiac muscles, and glands are still being activated. But remember that they are not being controlled by the fight or flight system (SNS) anymore. Instead, they’re being controlled by the rest and digest system (PNS).
Because of this, resting and digesting are priorities:
More Physical Symptoms of Rest and Digest
During times when the parasympathetic nervous system is active, your body works to conserve energy, and many positive things happen. For example, in addition to the changes in your heart, digestive system, and sweat glands outlined above, the following will also occur:
It’s easy to see that the fight or flight response is essential in some situations. Undoubtedly, your body's ability to manipulate the smooth muscles, cardiac muscles, and glands in order to produce quicker, faster, stronger reactions when you need them can save your life.
However, it’s also easy to see that if you are unable to perceive truly dangerous situations accurately, you may ignite your fight or flight response more often than is necessary. The point here is that you do not want your fight or flight system — the sympathetic nervous system — to be activated when it doesn't need to be.
Producing excessive sweat is good if you need to run away from a bear, but it’s not good when you’re trying to make a good impression on a first date.
Having your heart pump faster and stronger is good if you need to lift a fallen limb off of someone who’s hurt, but it's not good when you're sitting at your desk trying to finish up a report.
Original research by David S. Goldstein in the journal Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology states: “If the stress response is excessive or prolonged then any of a variety of clinical disorders can arise.”
In other words, activating the fight or flight response too often can cause serious health ramifications.
Long-term, frequent activation of the fight or flight response is often synonymous with a health phenomenon called chronic stress.
Chronic stress occurs when “your stress system stays activated over a long period of time … The constant rush of stress hormones can put a lot of wear and tear on your body, causing it to age more quickly and making it more prone to illness.”
Fortunately, there are ways to handle chronic stress — or the false perception that non-dangerous situations warrant the fight or flight response.
If you were asked at this point which system (the sympathetic or the parasympathetic) you would want to be most active most of the time, what would you answer?
Undoubtedly, the correct answer would be the parasympathetic nervous system. Naturally, it is this system that gives us that cool, calm, collected feeling.
But how can we encourage the parasympathetic nervous system and discourage the sympathetic nervous system when there is no true danger?
We can do this by cultivating better stress management strategies in our daily life. Here are several such strategies to start with:
Restorative yoga is a physical practice that helps your mind, body, and spirit slow down and relax. If you have been considering trying a yogic practice, restorative yoga is the perfect place to begin.
While other types of yoga may be more active and animated, restorative yoga tends to be slower. It often uses props such as bolsters, blankets, and blocks.
Poses are held for longer, and a few of the goals are to increase flexibility and strength, but it’s also about calming the mind. Many people say that after taking a restorative yoga class, they felt like they hardly moved at all. Unlike other contemporary yogic practices, these long holds can help you relax more deeply and allow your muscles and joints to restore themselves in amazing ways.
2. Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is an ancient yogic practice that puts practitioners into a state of near sleep. Through guided meditation by a professional practitioner, users of Yoga Nidra can achieve an extremely peaceful and intense state of relaxation that balances you on the very edge of sleep but not quite into dreamland.
Yoga Nidra can be practiced with an individual guide who can take you through the steps of achieving this mental state. It can also be practiced alone with help from a recorded guided meditation. Finally, you can take Yoga Nidra classes with a teacher who will guide your entire group.
3. Meditation Practice
Meditation is one of the best ways to improve your stress response, reduce overall anxiety in your life, and live more peacefully. It is definitely a way to help yourself reduce the occurrences of fight or flight in your life and to activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
Many people are intimidated by meditation; however, meditation should not be something you fear or worry about “accomplishing” or doing absolutely correctly. You cannot “accomplish” meditation. It is a practice that goes on and on and one that you can cultivate as a lifelong activity, which will provide endless benefits.
While there are certainly protocols for different types of meditation and guidelines that you can use as you're just starting out, anyone can decide to become a meditator at any time. You can meditate for hours at a time, but you can also meditate for two minutes or ten minutes.
For the most part, there are two types of meditation: sitting meditation and walking meditation.
Sitting meditation is generally where people start. You can meditate alone, with a partner, or in a group. You can meditate by using your own knowledge about meditation, or you can have a guide or teacher help you along. Meditation can be silent, or it may be accompanied by audible guidance from a teacher. You may decide to use a meditation cushion or chair or to sit on the floor or even at the edge of your bed.
The benefits of meditation are profound and can be seen both scientifically and by observation.
While many people think that the goal of meditation is to sit silently for long periods of time without thinking, without blinking, and without allowing your mind to waiver even for one moment, this couldn't be further from the truth. In actuality, meditation is simply about attempting to concentrate on a chosen focus (such as the breath or a mantra word or phrase) while noticing all of the thoughts, feelings, emotions, sounds, and sensations that come your way —and many of these things will surely come your way!
4. Daily Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is the practice of living each moment as it comes and focusing on each moment fully. In this day and age, many distractions cause us to be unable to concentrate and focus on one activity at a time.
Mindfulness promotes mono tasking — or doing one thing at a time, slowly, effectively, and mindfully.
To do something mindfully means to pay full attention to it and to embrace everything about it. You can do anything more mindfully — from washing dishes or sweeping the floor, to driving to work or playing with your children.
5. Tai Chi
Many people find that movement helps them concentrate better when it comes to meditation. If sitting meditation tends to be a challenge because of its motionless and stillness, you might try tai chi.
Tai chi is also especially good for those who suffer with chronic pain or illnesses and for the elderly, as a way of getting exercise for both the mind and body.
Tai chi is an ancient Chinese practice and was originally a form of self-defense. However, today it is used to reduce stress and promote physical fitness. The practice is often done in a group with a leader. It is described frequently as "meditation in motion." By using slow, gentle movements that flow from one to the next, tai chi helps your body stretch and exercise itself while your brain aims to focus on the breath and stay in the moment, watching each flowing movement as you perform them.
A: Sort of. You'll remember that the fight or flight response is automatic. In other words, you can't actively control it the way you can control how your hands move or what you say.
On the other hand, you can trigger relaxation responses within yourself, which can help you overcome your stress response in times of immense tension. Naturally, you wouldn't want to do this if you were actually experiencing a dangerous situation. But if you're in a situation that doesn't warrant fight or flight but still may be stressful, you can try relaxing with some of the techniques listed above.
Additionally, when you don't have a lot of time, deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation are particularly useful.
A: Yes. In fact, this is a common issue for many people, and it is often referred to as panic attack disorder.
With this disorder, racing thoughts or emotions (or sometimes, an initial triggering event followed by racing thoughts and emotions) can cause extreme physical reactions. These reactions are essentially the same as those in fight or flight situations, such as a racing heart and quickened breathing.
A: The time can vary. Fight or flight begins right away. That's what it's meant to do: occur extremely quickly so that you can efficiently decide whether to stay or go in a dangerous situation.
However, the situation will dictate how long the flood of fight or flight hormones remains activated. Generally speaking, adrenaline that has flooded your body during fight or flight may remain in your body for some time after the initial rush, meaning it can take some time to “come down” from this automatic response.
There’s no need to live your life in “fight or flight” mode. While it is sometimes a necessary function that offers immense benefits in times of danger, it is not a sustainable way to live on a regular basis.
For this reason, better stress management becomes absolutely essential. The approaches outlined in the page above will provide you with a strong foundation to begin working actively against the recurrence of fight or flight when it’s not needed. The benefits of these approaches promote optimal physical and mental health in the face of regular stressors and the daily ups and downs of daily life.