Fight-or-flight response

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Fight-or-flight response, also called the "acute stress response", is a fundamental physiologic response which prepares the body to "fight" or "flee" from perceived attack, harm or threat to our survival. Originally discovered by the great Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, it is our body's primitive, automatic, inborn response.


Why should I be aware of this?

  • It forms the foundation of modern day stress medicine.
  • Though designed by nature for our survival against physical attacks, today what triggers our fight-or-flight responses are modern day-to-day stresses.
  • Some see it as stress reaction to common fears associated with situations where they see no easy escape route.
  • By its very nature, the fight or flight system bypasses our rational mind and moves us to see everyone and everything as a possible threat.
  • However such responses are worrisome if they happen even during commonplace events like shopping or attending a meeting.

All about fight-or-flight response

A number of physiological changes take place in the body when a person senses something potentially threatening. The brain sends warning signals through the central nervous system. The adrenal glands begin producing hormones (adrenalin and noradrenalin) which cause the heart to beat faster and breathing to become more rapid. Muscles tense and pupils dilate. At this stage the person's body gets ready to do one of two things:

  • Confront the threat and deal with it, or
  • Get as far away from the threat as fast as possible.

The release of these hormones causes the following:

  • Speeds the heart rate,
  • Slows digestion,
  • Shunting blood flow to major muscle groups
  • Changing various other autonomic nervous functions.

This gives the body an unusual burst of energy and strength. Once the perceived threat passes, systems are designed to return to normal function via the relaxation response.

Types of psychological changes

According to researchers several physiological changes occur during the fight-or-flight stress response, primarily triggered by the sympathetic nervous system through the release of stress hormones, such as, epinephrine (adrenaline) into the blood stream. This causes reactions needed to fight or flee the threat.

Some of the changes during this process include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Accelerated breathing
  • Constriction of blood vessels to some parts of the body and dilation of blood vessels to the muscles

Hypersensitive cases

For some people the early warning system is a little too sensitive, as they are triggered by events that would be ignored by many others. The reasons for this kind of hypersensitivity can include:

  • An inherited imbalance in brain hormones, as in anxiety and bipolar disorders
  • A history of physical or verbal abuse in childhood
  • Other post-traumatic stress disorders

What can I do?

  • We can learn to handle the stress overload by recognizing the symptoms and signs of being in fight or flight
  • Even if the threat is only psychological rather than physical the fight-or-flight response can help us deal decisively with issues, moving us to action. But this runs the risk of making us hyper-vigilant and over-reactive during times when a state of calm awareness is more productive.
  • By learning to recognize the signals of fight-or-flight activation, we can avoid taking too seriously events and fears which are not so serious. This way we can use this energy to help us rather than harm us.

How to reduce our stress

The fight-or-flight response not only warns us of real external danger but also of the mere perception of danger. We can take the following steps to reduce our stress:

  • Take steps to make the environment we live in safer by getting out of toxic, noisy or hostile environments. We can acquire emotional safety by surrounding ourselves with friends and people who genuinely care for us, learning better communication skills, time management skills, getting out of toxic jobs and hurtful relationships.
  • Make efforts to change our mental perspectives, our attitudes, our beliefs and our emotional reactions to the events that happen to us. View the difficulties of life as events that make us stronger and more loving.

Breathing exercises

If you are mostly in a heightened state of alert, breathing exercises provide a relatively easy tool for providing relief. Some of the relief comes just from taking a moment to pause and notice what's going on in our bodies.

  • Sit in a quiet place in a straight back chair
  • Place both feet on the floor or lie on the floor with a straight spine.
  • Begin inhaling letting the abdomen inflate like a balloon. Then move the breath into your rib cage and then into your upper chest.
  • Exhale by reversing this action. Contract your abdominal muscles as you finish exhaling.
  • Place your right hand on your abdomen and your left hand on your rib cage to help direct the breath.
  • Gradually lengthen the practice from one minute to five minutes.


  • In some people, there may exist what's called a "deficit in their stimulus barrier." Noises, action, movement, smells and sights in their surroundings may be more difficult for them to shut out than it is for most people.
  • About 20 to 25 percent of people with panic have close relatives with panic disorder. [1]


  • The Fight or Flight Theory of Panic Disorder
  • The Fight or Flight Response
  • Taming the Fight or Flight Response


  1. The Fight or Flight Response